Several times, a grieving Frank Pomeroy raised his hand in the air as if to say “Amen!” to the truth of Scripture that was echoing across the football stadium. As if to acknowledge ultimate victory in Jesus. As if to defy darkness.
That much was clear to the several thousand who packed the football stadium in Floresville, Texas, just down the road from Sutherland Springs, where on Nov. 5 a 26-year-old gunman shot 46 people during Sunday services inside the First Baptist Church where Pomeroy is pastor, brutally killing 26 of them, in the worst mass killing ever inside an American house of worship. The dead included Pomeroy’s 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Renae.
The Texas church shooting came six days after an ISIS-inspired terrorist plowed a pickup into pedestrians and bicyclists in New York City, killing eight people and injuring 11, and just over a month after a gunman fired on an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 and injuring 546.
Those attending the Nov. 8 community prayer service at the stadium were there to pray, to honor the dead, to show solidarity with the victims’ families, and to hear encouragement from Vice President Mike Pence, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and from several pastors and denominational leaders.
“Whatever animated the evil that descended on that church last Sunday, if his desire was to silence their testimony of faith, he failed,” Pence told the crowd. “The voice of faith, the witness of faith in that small church and that small town now echoes across the world.”
Faith has always been the “summit of our national life,” said Pence, encouraging Americans to fill houses of worship the following Sunday to pray for Sutherland Springs, a town of about 600 people, and for the nation.
Abbott recounted to those gathered how inspired he was attending a prayer vigil in Sutherland Springs the night of the shooting.
“Hours before that, your community saw the very face of evil,” Abbott said. “Hours later, you reflected the very grace of God. You were a demonstration of God’s grace across this entire world.
“In times of tragedy Texans come together,” Abbott said, with neighbors helping neighbors.
“And thank God, there was a neighbor who helped save lives on that tragic day,” Abbott said to clapping and shouts of “Amen” in alluding to Sutherland Springs resident Stephen Willeford, who was hailed a hero for firing his rifle at the killer, wounding him twice. The killer later died, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot.
The Nov. 8 prayer service was one of a handful in Sutherland Springs and nearby towns in the week that followed the shooting. Abbott proclaimed Sunday, Nov. 12, as a day of prayer across Texas.
The afternoon of the shooting, chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team left their posts on the Texas coast, where they were continuing hurricane relief ministry, and moved quickly to Sutherland Springs, staying at nearby River Oaks Church into the early morning hours Monday with victims’ family members through the agonizing wait to hear word on their loved ones.
“The local pastors have really rallied around these people,” said chaplain Barb Grabowski, whose husband, Leo, was coordinating chaplain efforts.
Sutherland Springs, a mostly rural mix of Hispanic and white residents, is heavily populated by churchgoing Christians and a cooperative spirit, said Larry Keeble, an associate pastor at River Oaks Church, a sister Baptist congregation to First Baptist.
Despite unspeakable loss, remaining members of the small church, which averages around 50 people in attendance, gathered for worship the Sunday following the massacre, drawing some 500 people to a tent set up several blocks from the church property.
On Nov. 8, authorities had released all the names of the 26 dead, including an unborn baby—Carlin Brite Holcombe.
CNN and USA Today were among several news outlets that cited 25 people among the dead—a count that didn’t include baby Carlin. CNN, for example, referred to “25 people and an unborn child.” Meanwhile, the New York Times and NBC felt a need to run stories explaining that Texas law requires unborn children to be counted in homicide cases.
By the morning of Nov. 9, an Illinois carpenter had placed 26 small, white wooden crosses near the main intersection in the center of town. Each cross bore the name of one of the deceased.
On the cross bearing the name of Crystal Holcombe, 18 weeks pregnant with Carlin and one of eight people from the same family killed that morning, someone had written a reference to Revelation 21:3-4, which speaks of a new heaven and earth when “the dwelling place of God is with man,” and “death shall be no more.”
The words of Gov. Abbott, referencing Psalm 62 at the prayer gathering, expressed the spirit of the community shown in words and deed during the week following the tragedy.
“‘He is my fortress. I will never be shaken.’ You will never be shaken. We will never be shaken. The communities affected by this tragedy will never be shaken as long as we build our fortress on the Rock of God.” ©2017 BGEA