SUTHERLAND SPRINGS — Gunsmoke filled the church sanctuary as David Colbath crawled on his elbows beneath the pews, wounded and whispering, “I love you Jesus, I love you Morgan, I love you Olivia.”
The San Antonio Express-News reports Gunny Macias, 54, locked eyes with a teenage girl as they lay on the floor. She told him, “Gunny, I’m scared.” He told her they should sing.
“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.”
Devin Kelley, the abusive husband of a parishioner, had just opened fire with an assault-style rifle on worshippers attending Sunday service at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, killing 26 and wounding 20.
The Holcombe family lost nine of their own. Five couples died together. Some mothers died, protecting their children. One mother survived but lost her 1-year-old daughter.
Almost a year has passed since the Nov. 5, 2017, shooting in this town southeast of San Antonio, a rural place anchored by the small church.
The congregation, led by pastor Frank Pomeroy, 52, and his wife, Sherri, 49, has turned the sanctuary into a memorial while a larger church is being built next door.
The church has always been the unifying force here, drawing the community to Sunday services, weekly bible studies, potlucks, summer camps for children and a regular calendar of events such as next week’s fall festival.
It’s in a town with one stoplight, two gas stations, a Dollar General store and a small museum. Children attend schools in nearby communities.
For parishioners here, God is everywhere. He’s in the South Texas skies they reach for with their hands every Sunday. He’s in the thousands of letters and gifts from people across the world sending prayers and condolences. He’s in the flowers at the victims’ graves.
The power of their faith has uplifted survivors in their day-to-day battles for physical and emotional recovery, and it has driven the community’s desire to serve others. Romans 12:21 is often heard around the church today: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
“God has shown us how to combat evil: With love and caring about one another. And respecting and valuing life,” said Julie Workman, 55, who survived with minor wounds. Her sons Kris and Kyle were with her that day. Kris, 35, worship leader and an employee of Rackspace Inc., was paralyzed from the waist down.
First Baptist members wear silver, Texas-shaped necklaces with the words “Sutherland Springs strong.” They have T-shirts with the inscription “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” In worship, they sing about the “never-ending, reckless love of God.”
“If I didn’t have my faith in Christ, I don’t know if I could have made it through,” said Debbie Braden, who lost Keith, her husband of nearly 34 years. “But the ones that He left behind are becoming stronger.”
She and her 7-year-old granddaughter Zoe survived. Across the room from Macias, they were also softly singing “Jesus loves me,” as Debbie’s husband lay dead nearby.
People told me at one time back in March and April that ‘Everything’s not fine, David.’ And I said ‘I realize that.'” he said. “I realize it’s not fine, as in perfect, but it’s a road. It’s a road we’re going down that we didn’t ask to go down. But it’s a road of healing, and a road of love.”
Most of the surviving parishioners have returned to church, many of them with shrapnel embedded in their bodies. Church attendance has at least doubled as some members have committed to the church more fully than before, and new members have arrived seeking to lift up spirits and lend a hand.
“In the time afterwards I thought ‘This will all be over soon. We’ll get back to normal.’ But we’re still dealing with the after-effects. It’s just like ‘When is it going to end?'” said Kyle Workman, 26, an H-E-B bakery worker who escaped the church uninjured.
There will be a “new normal,” the parishioners say, but for now, nothing feels normal.
“It’s two steps forward, 19 steps back,” she said.
Sherri Pomeroy hates being home in the afternoon. She’ll hear the screech of the wheels and the sound of children’s voices as the school bus pulls to a stop. Her 14-year-old daughter Annabelle should be running out. Greeting their dogs. Talking about her day.
Sherri and Frank were not in church the day of the shooting. Sherri was in Florida helping with hurricane recovery efforts; Frank was in Oklahoma. Both have struggled with survivor’s guilt.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be OK. I won’t ever be the same. But I have to wake up every day, I have to get out of bed,” she said. “That’s not a choice.”
He’s not sure if he ever will. He said the old church is “like a headstone.”
“Grief is something you just can’t explain,” he said, wearing his father’s old paint-spattered work clothes. “I know they’re in heaven, but it feels like a part of them is still there.”
For Johnson and others in the devout community, Pomeroy’s sermons help them cope.
“Fear imprisons us, where faith liberates us,” Pomeroy said during a recent sermon in the modular building serving as the temporary church.
“There is a point where we are just existing,” he said. “But God wants us to live. We have to focus on the light.”
At a recent Sunday service, Frank Pomeroy addressed a one-eyed crowd.
One-eyed, because many wore eye patches. They also had a lot of bling — gold chains, earrings, bangles on their wrists. One congregant, Morgan Colbath, David’s son, had five or six clip-on nose rings dangling past his chin. Not to mention the plastic swords and hooks.
“Ahoy!” said Sarah Slavin, when she took to the altar soon after Pomeroy.
It was Pirate Day at First Baptist. Nobody’s ever held back here. And the November tragedy has compelled more congregants to participate in the events.
Part of the church’s appeal is its acceptance of differences and oddities.
“If you think about all the different personalities, we should not work,” said Unitia “Nish” Harris, a church member whose daughter Morgan and two sons-in-law survived the shooting.
There’s boisterous David Colbath, who people joke doesn’t need an altar to deliver a sermon; Judy and Rod Green, quiet and serious, who run the food pantry every Friday; and sisters Colbey and Morgan Workman, who can be seen tripping over random objects or cracking up at a well-timed reference to the television show “The Office.”
“This place goes against all reason. I was raised a military brat, I’ve seen a lot of people. You’d think this would be a boring, small-town church,” Harris said. “But it’s not. I hate to say we’re a bunch of oddballs, but we are.”
Many of the congregants live on land passed down through the generations. They work in oil fields, own small businesses in La Vernia and Floresville or commute to jobs in San Antonio.
“We used to joke with Karla (Holcombe) that we have a real motley crew in Sutherland Springs, and we still say to this day it’s ‘Sutherland Sprung,’ if something’s broke,” said Sherri Pomeroy.
“We do have an unconventional pastor, building, congregation — none of that is typical of a church. It’s really quite the opposite. Everything you would think you’d see at a church, is what you’re not gonna see at our church.”
Frank Pomeroy is a tattoo-wearing, Harley Davidson-driving pastor. He’s a member of the Faith Riders, a group of religious bikers, and he and Sherri go on long trips together. Frank also hunts, and has a large, stuffed bear in his study at home. Sherri Pomeroy sometimes shows up to church in shorts and flip-flops. The blue-collar workers who make up most of the congregation feel at ease attending services in their paint-stained, oil-stained, work-worn clothing.
“We try very hard to welcome everybody, wherever they are in their life,” Sherri said.
Since November, the worship band, once a trio, has grown to more than a dozen members: a choir section, a keyboard, drums, guitars and sometimes a flutist.
When he went to First Baptist in February for the first time since the shooting, Macias, a Marine veteran, used a walker and still was connected to tubes for his damaged organs. Recovering from five bullet wounds, Macias was embarrassed about his physical condition, and nervous about showing up.
But when he did, he never looked back.
“I felt all the embarrassment and the pain — all that stuff just went away when I got to church,” he said. “Melted away.”
With his wife, he has attended almost every Sunday since, including Pirate Day — cane in one hand, pirate hook in the other.
Dozens of purple balloons floated into the white-and-blue sky above Annabelle Pomeroy’s grave.
“As you look up at the balloons, remember Annabelle is way higher than that,” Frank Pomeroy said at the Sutherland Springs cemetery.
Frank had worn a purple shirt to Sunday services earlier in the day, and Sherri wore a patterned purple dress. Several congregants wore purple, too — Annabelle’s favorite color.
It was Oct. 21 and would have been Annabelle’s 15th birthday. It marked the last of all the major “firsts” for the Pomeroys — the first year of holidays and family events without their daughter. Annabelle’s birthday last year was also the last time Sherri saw her. She flew to Florida afterward, and did not return until after the shooting.
Sherri tried to explain Annabelle’s absence to her grandchildren.
“She’s having a party in heaven with Karla and Lou. And you know they always had the best parties,” Sherri said. “In heaven nobody says be quiet. They can be as loud as they want.”
There was one last balloon that Sherri had to release. It was large and clear and read “Happy Birthday.” She clutched it near Annabelle’s grave, her tears dotting its shiny surface.
“It hurts that she’s not here,” Frank Pomeroy quietly told his son. “But one day we’ll see her again.”
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