By Jane Rodgers, Southern Baptist Texan correspondent
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS—Approaching the anniversary of the November 2017 shooting that claimed 26 lives at First Baptist Sutherland Springs, Pastor Frank Pomeroy, his wife, Sherri, and their congregation are demonstrating the truth of the slogan gracing the church’s marquee: “evil did not win.”
A year later, the Pomeroys aren’t healed, but healing. They are skeptical of the media and they are recognized often when they venture out—even on an Alaska vacation. They are grateful for how faith groups responded to the tragedy. They are wary of conspiracy “truthers” but committed to truth.
“We are ready to start toward the new normal,” Frank told the TEXAN during an interview with the couple Oct. 17 in his office, located inside a small administrative wing off the former sanctuary.
Windy Choate, church secretary since spring when she assumed the job filled by Sherri in the months following the shootings, handed letters to Frank, who arrived for our 10:30 appointment on time clad in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, apologizing for his casual appearance. He spent part of that morning mowing the gravesite of his 14-year-old daughter Annabelle, a shooting victim.
“It’s been raining so much, the grass has grown high,” Pomeroy explained. “I stopped to clean it up on the way here.”
Restoring the building
Inside Frank’s modest office, construction noises—staccato beeps of forklifts—were reminders that a church building is arising onsite. The unfinished sanctuary, its bell and light tower walls up, already dominates the townscape.
“I didn’t realize how tall it was going to be,” Frank said, adding with a chuckle, “As a pastor, my first thought was, ‘How am I gonna change the light bulbs?’”
The facility should be finished in the spring. Its walls, but not roof, should all be up by the Nov. 4 Sunday observance of the anniversary, which will include a morning worship service followed by a meal catered by HEB, special music and appearances from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards.
Both Pomeroys expressed gratitude to local and state entities and private benefactors like HEB grocery stores for the tremendous support following the tragedy. HEB has been “everywhere” both said, from catering events to remodeling survivors’ living spaces.
They are especially grateful for the assistance of Southern Baptists, including fellow pastors and a network of nonprofits called BCFS, which has helped logistically from “day one,” Sherri said.
Frank lauded the “long haul” support of the SBTC and NAMB. Among other things, the SBTC paid Frank’s salary for a year while NAMB contracted with the Alabama firm of Myrick Gurosky & Associates to construct the new facility.
“With NAMB, we have not had to make any serious decisions whatsoever on that property,” Frank said, praising MG&A project manager Gary Nazaruk, who came out of retirement in nearby Boerne to supervise the construction.
In the meantime, Frank is dealing with the mundane issues of parking and space.
As for some of the promised in-kind donations for the project, Frank affirmed the truth of the old adage “strike while the iron is hot,” noting that many who volunteered services and material right after the shootings can’t be found.
“So that’s sad,” he said.
Healing the church
The once tiny congregation, which Frank has pastored for 17 years, now numbers 180-200 each Sunday, despite the inconveniences of occupying a temporary rented metal building with limited classroom space. Some 30-40 baptisms of new believers occurred this year.
“At least one or two reporters come every Sunday,” Frank said, adding that the numbers of merely curious visitors had shrunk while many home-grown members returned to stay and actively serve. Most who attend live nearby, many with prior connections to the church. Others whose attendance was “hit and miss” before last November are now faithful in coming, bringing energy.
Stephen Willeford, the man credited with stopping the shooter, a longtime friend and active community member, is now at church “pretty much when the doors open when he is in town,” Frank said.
The majority of the survivors and their families have remained at First Baptist, several constituting most of the praise team still led by survivor Kris Workman, Sherri said.
Frank noted he has more Sunday school teachers than classrooms, a problem that will be resolved once the new facility opens. Meanwhile, the youth will move into another space as their building is razed to make room for the construction.
Shepherding a flock that has lost so much is challenging. Frank’s “right-hand man” Karla Holcombe, among Sherri’s best friends, died in the shootings. Deacons died.
“I lost a lot of my core and my leadership that day,” Frank said.
But others have stepped up, not only to lead worship, but also to take over the security response team and other ministries.
Calling God “the great choreographer” who “placed people in the positions,” Frank said, “I wish I could tell you it’s great, easy, simple, but it’s not. But it’s a whole lot easier because I have these people.”
The church has continued with traditions, including a community meal Thursday evenings before Bible study and breakfast Sunday mornings, although helpers have assumed Sherri’s duties in the kitchen.
“They kicked me out, told me to take a break,” she said, smiling. The dynamics of the Thursday meal have changed: now most people remain for Bible study whereas before last November, many ate and left.
The church’s Oct. 31 fall festival and its annual Thanksgiving meal will continue, like last year.
“We always do Thanksgiving all day here because we said this is our church family,” Frank said. … “When people have crises, this church is their central ground.”
Sherri added, “The church is supposed to be the center of the community and now I think it is.”
Learning to cope
Victims, survivors and families have rarely met together to share their stories, the Pomeroys said. This changed on Oct. 17, when survivors attended a meeting closed to outsiders and mediated by Ecumenical Center personnel at the Sutherland Springs community center.
“Now more are ready to talk or capable of listening,” Frank said of the meeting.
Survivors and victims’ families are being helped through a $2.3 million grant provided by the State of Texas to six agencies: UTSA, the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, the Ecumenical Center, Floresville ISD, the San Antonio Bar Association and the Camino Real Mental Health Authority.
Like their congregation, the Pomeroys are still recovering. Returning from a pastors’ retreat in Waxahachie in mid-October, Sherri felt rested, even “healed,” until she was reminded of Annabelle at a gas station.
“I saw a little girl with the same haircut as my Annabelle, and I just lost it in the middle of the store,” Sherri said, adding that the good days outnumber the bad ones now.
“OK is relative,” she added. “We are learning to cope.”
Sherri not only lost her teenage daughter, adopted at age 2, but also her best friends Lula White and Holcombe, the trusted sounding boards every pastor’s wife needs.
Because she operated on self-described “robot mode” for months following the shootings, Sherri was reluctant to speak in public. She is not shy about addressing large groups, but the tragedy left her numb even when old friends called.
Sherri’s “robot mode” lasted for “months and months” and “still kicks in,” she said. The couple went to a group counseling session, but real progress didn’t occur till September, when she started seeing a counselor employing EDMR—Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing—a strategy that helps patients discard harmful emotions associated with painful memories.
The Pomeroys are proponents of EDMR, a therapy used for PTSD by the military for decades and which Frank said has “made a world of difference” for Sherri. She sees a therapist connected to the Ecumenical Center. Frank has not sought individual counseling but is not against it, he said.
The media, the truthers and the truth
While Christian groups have gone “over and above” to protect the couple, the Pomeroys’ relationship with some media has been strained.
“We don’t have anything private anymore,” Sherri said.
The intrusions started that tragic Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, when both Frank and Sherri received phone calls about the tragedy before either could get home.
“I started getting calls from the media on my cell phone before I ever got to the airport in Florida,” Sherri recalled.
“ABC somehow got my number and was calling me; I wasn’t even out of Oklahoma City yet,” Frank said.
“It put a bad taste in our mouths and we had to really walk on eggshells to decide who to talk to,” Sherri said, noting that one local reporter had feigned friendship but later wrote a sensational, unsubstantiated story about Frank’s alleged mishandling of donations.
“I cannot even access those [bank] accounts,” Frank said, affirming that most journalists had been objective and accurate, but that he had acquired a reputation about not caring for the media.
“It’s just that I don’t prioritize media anymore. The ones I do, I pick and choose,” he explained.
Media attention has encouraged its share of oddballs, including some so-called “truthers” claiming the shootings were a hoax, or that the church has misappropriated victims’ funds.
The former is just another conspiracy theory. There are safeguards to prevent the latter; Frank serves as an ad hoc, non-voting member of the restoration committee, and the victims’ funds are managed independently.
The culmination of the truther “ordeal,” as Frank calls it, occurred during a physical confrontation last March with two peddlers of online conspiracies known as “Side Thorn” and “Conspiracy Granny,” who frequently blared insults outside the church with bullhorns.
“All the neighbors had filed criminal trespass complaints against them. But because we are a public establishment, I myself had to ask him to leave at least once before I could file one,” Frank explained.
Videos of the confrontation between the truthers and Frank went viral, enabling local authorities to execute warrants and arrest the trespassers on a variety of charges.
The occasional truthers still surface, leaving messages on the church’s Facebook page, but most harassment has ended.
Meanwhile, the couple’s speaking opportunities have increased. They appear at events sponsored by the security company Sheepdog Ministries. Both addressed SBC groups last summer in Dallas. Sherri shared at a recent Women of Joy conference. They appeared on James Dobson’s Family Talk and with Ronnie Floyd at the National Day of Prayer in Washington, D.C.
They have even been to the White House, where, Frank said, prayer is “everywhere.”
What they wish they’d known
At security conferences, the couple counsels audiences to be prepared, know the local sheriff, police and county officials. “Frank knew them. It’s good to have those relationships before an event, so authorities know who you are,” Sherri said.
“Prior to any emergency, you need to make sure that it’s not a man, not a pastor, not a deacon body or organization at the head of a church. It’s got to be Christ,” Frank added. “The church has to have Christ at the forefront or they’re not going to be able to have the spirit to get through the ordeal. People ask us how we did this. We didn’t. God did—through us.
“Prior to the shootings, we were a small church with a big heart. The Holy Spirit was always there. That’s what brought us through. It’s not even having a good security response team or about how many cameras you hang. We’ve got cameras. We’ve got a trained SRT. We’ve got nurses. We’ve done everything we can physically but all this is for naught if we are not spiritually prepared proactively before an event.”
What helped … what didn’t
Grief is different for every person, the Pomeroys said.
For Sherri, physical contact helped, but the less said, the better: “At Annabelle’s funeral, we probably had a thousand people come up and hug me. That physically held me up that day.”
“Be listening and attentive. Then you can see who needs a hug. Who needs space. Who needs you to bring food. Who doesn’t need you to bring food,” Frank said, adding that there are no easy or one-size-fits-all answers.
Frank cautioned against using Christian clichés, such as “God won’t give you any more than you can handle,” to comfort the grieving.
“I was mad at God. All of those Christian clichés would sometimes make me very angry,” Sherry said.
“God knows our hearts. We can be angry and not sin. God knew Sherri’s heart. She was angry. Her heart was broken,” Frank said.
Sherri is considering completing her undergraduate degree. Frank is looking to get through the anniversary commemoration and completion of the facility as he continues to pastor.
“The church is still proceeding forward in a great way,” he said. With two of the church’s three deacons slain last November, the deacon board is rebuilding.
The old sanctuary will remain a memorial for now and will always be “hallowed ground,” Frank said, but the congregation will eventually decide whether the present structure stays or if another sort of memorial or garden is installed.
“The church will make that decision. Not me. Not the community,” Frank said.
Meanwhile, a group of Anabaptists from New York is coming to man the memorial during the anniversary commemoration—symbolic of how Sutherland Springs resonates across faith traditions.
The Pomeroys and their congregation have received and prayed over tens of thousands of cards, letters and e
mails from around the country and the world, their experience striking a chord among not just Anabaptists, but Protestants of all persuasions, Catholics, Muslims, Jews and even atheists who have expressed sympathy, concern and sometimes curiosity about the faith that overcomes tragedy.
“We have received letters from Australia, China, Uganda, the UK, including lots of Irish letters. Truckloads of letters,” Frank said.
“I feel that God is using our experience as a revival worldwide,” he continued, observing that the tragedy “would have been almost mundane news in the Middle East.” That it happened in the “protected isle of America” has given the world pause.
Citing examples of hundreds of cards and letters mentioning revival in homes and communities overseas, Frank hypothesized that statistically, spiritual renewal has spread further.
When Annabelle and her sister entered their lives, adopting two more children was not in the Pomeroys’ plans.
Nor was selecting a plot in the community cemetery for Annabelle.
The cemetery director told Frank that no one wanted the section in a fenced corner overlooking a duck pond, a place livestock gathered.
“That’s because God was saving it for Annabelle,” Frank told the man.
It was the corner where she would go whenever her father conducted graveside services at the cemetery.
Now Frank sits by his daughter’s grave on a bench just a bit too short for him. He watches ducks, cows and calves, remembering how Annabelle loved animals.
“All the death is behind you. You are looking at the life over there,” he muses.
That analogy is also fitting for the Pomeroys and their church. The death is behind. Life is ahead.