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Prayers, Unity in Year Since Deadly Texas Church Shootings

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    Prayers, Unity in Year Since Deadly Texas Church Shootings

    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. (Published Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018)

    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.

    The grieving process has been "slow for some, fast for others," said Colbath, 56, a fence company owner. He was shot eight times, in his right arm, leg and torso, while he chanted the names of his two children.

    "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.

    Kathleen Curnow, who lives across the street from the church, dreads loud noises. She sees balloons and fears the sound of them popping. She winces when a truck hits a pothole on the road and avoids looking at a spot in the lawn, visible from her living-room window, where Kelley's SUV was parked as he murdered her friends in the church.

    "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."

    Neil Johnson, whose parents Sara and Dennis Johnson were killed, still hasn't stepped inside the memorial.

    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.

    The congregants will tell you the church is a no-judgment zone. Flaws, hardships and idiosyncrasies are supported, understood and if need be, prayed upon. Prayer requests for people in need more than doubled after the shooting to include survivors and victims' family members, and then tripled after the deadly Santa Fe High School shooting in May left 10 students and staff dead.

    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.

    Many church members have sought concealed handgun licenses, and there's a security team made up of volunteer congregants.

    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."

    Rod Green, a friend of the Pomeroys, said a prayer for Annabelle.

    Then the Pomeroys looked to the sky.

    They told Annabelle they missed her.

    Sherri, still crying, let go of the last balloon.

    Sometimes the Pomeroys know when their grief will take hold: When it's time for the school bus to come. When they look through old photos. When they visit Annabelle's grave.

    But other times, it just hits them. Frank will say or see something during a sermon that reminds him of her. A girl with long dark hair will pass by at the grocery store. A song will play on the car radio.

    And Sherri will wonder: "How can I just disappear? How can I make it all go away?"

    "The darkest moments are not wanting to live, and that's certainly happened several times," she said. "But I know that would just create more devastation."

    She and Frank have been interviewed by reporters dozens of times since Nov. 5. They've preached of strength, spread word of counseling options, distributed gifts and donated items that poured in from around the world.

    "I know I have to keep going. But it's a struggle sometimes just to get out of bed in the mornings," Sherri said. "Because in bed you don't have to worry about her not coming out of the bedroom, or that you're never going to see them again."

    Many survivors and victims' families questioned God. They wondered: How could his grand plan include the killing of children, mothers, fathers, grandmothers?

    "There was times I'd cry and say, `Why, God? Why? Why?' It's not `Why am I crippled, why am I deformed?' It's `Why did I survive?"' Macias said.

    Johnson has only just started going back to church. For months after the tragedy, he couldn't leave his bed.

    "I thought, `Why bother to care for things if it can be taken in the blink of an eye?"' he said.

    Sherri said she feels like a 2-year-old, throwing a tantrum at God. She has all the "right" answers in her head, but it's hard to get them "back down here," she said, placing her hand on her heart.

    This past summer, Sherri and Frank went to the camper on the Rockport beach that they used for vacations. Lula White and Karla Holcombe used to go with Sherri, but they were gone now, victims of the massacre.

    Stepping into the camper, Sherri ran into a dangling, fake spider that Karla had put there to scare her.

    She started laughing, and then crying. Karla always did little pranks like that.

    "We've been given this situation; we either have to go on living or not. And that's not an option, to not live," Sherri said. "So every moment, sometimes breath by breath, we've got to make a choice to go on. It's not an easy choice, but it's the right choice."

    Stephen Willeford held Danielle Kelley's hands in his and pulled them close to his chest as she spoke.

    Danielle sobbed, her long brown hair trailing through her blue backpack.

    "I forgive you," Danielle told Willeford. And then she went one step further: "Thank you."

    It was Father's Day, the first time she had returned to church since the massacre. With her parents, Michelle and Ben Shields, there for support, she waited to spot Willeford, who had confronted and shot Devin Kelley, her husband, as he fled the church after the massacre.

    Kelley shot and killed himself after a car chase. Earlier that morning, he had tied up Danielle at their home in New Braunfels and grabbed his guns -- never telling her where he was going.

    Healing for the Sutherland Springs community has come with hope and forgiveness. It has required a balance of acknowledging dark thoughts, and not being consumed by them.

    When sorrow begins to overwhelm, Julie Workman takes out her Bible and goes to her "quiet place," what she called "drawing the hardness out."

    When Neil Johnson's thoughts turn dark, he imagines himself watering his tender plants.

    When Sherri Pomeroy feels the grief threatening to overcome her, she goes to happy hour at Sonic Drive-In for a Diet Coke and sits in a park to read.

    "Yes, we're devastated, yes, we're broken, but we're not going to change our character, and hate through this. We're going to get through it, somehow," Sherri said.

    Frank Pomeroy said he cares more about "where I am and what I am and who I'm with" than "what might be tomorrow" or "what happened yesterday."

    "It's taught me to live in the moment, to be the best that I can be as a representative of Christ, a representative of humanity," he said.

    The community is still searching for ways to turn heartbreak into good deeds.

    "I'm all different people now. I'm not just a mom, I'm a mom who's lost her daughter. I'm a person who's lost her friend, and a lot of friends," Sherri said. "Now I can relate to people who have been there. Now instead of having sympathy for somebody, I can have empathy for them."

    Sherri has signed up to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in disaster relief.

    Colbath has become more engaged in his friend's lives. He's attended funerals of people he didn't know well, offered to lead sermons when the pastor is traveling.

    "I want to be involved with other people's lives. I want to be someone who is lifting people up," he said. "Who am I not to care for other people?"

    Jenni Holcombe, who lost her husband and daughter, has started working part-time at the All City Youth Programs, and said she's still trying to figure out what her purpose is after all she's been through.

    Julie Workman implores her friends to "to lead by example. Show the world we do love one another, we are a church community that cares about one another, and we leave no one behind."

    "I hope to see people caring about one another and valuing life. I hope to see that from a nursing standpoint, improvements in health care and mental health. Putting our society back together to where we all care about one another, we're not isolated in our own little homes, our own little worlds."

    Willeford could have been angry at Danielle for having stayed with an abusive husband. He could have been upset with her for not recognizing the red flags -- signs of anger and delusion that began in the last six months of Devin Kelley's life. He could have raged at her for bringing into the community the man who killed his best friends.

    Instead, he set her free.

    "You have to let go of the guilt," he told her on Father's Day, as he held her hands in his. "For your sake, and for your children."

    They embraced.

    Since then, the church community has wholly accepted Danielle and her two children back into the congregation. When she attends services, people hug and pray over her and take her children into their arms.

    "It broke my heart to see her cry," Willeford said of their encounter. "I hope she finds peace."

    The makings of the new church rise from the grounds around the First Baptist Church. It will have the old church's bell and a sanctuary to seat hundreds.

    "I'm utterly in amazement every time I drive up," said Frank Pomeroy. "It's going to be beautiful. And God's going to get the glory for that. It will be the light on the hill."