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Prayer and a packing pastor: A church’s response to mass shooting

Pastor Frank Pomeroy discusses a Bible passage with church member Mary Dykeman at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

The chain-link fence outside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, is studded with signs of support. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (RNS) — Pastor Frank Pomeroy now carries a pistol to each and every church function.

The gun isn’t new; he’s had it for years. But it was not until the shooting rampage nearly four months ago that killed more than two dozen at First Baptist Church including a pregnant woman — and his own daughter — that he began wearing it regularly, in a holster on his hip.

As fresh mass shootings such as the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which killed 17, reopen debates about gun control, members of this  Southern Baptist congregation are relying on what they hope is added safety plus  ongoing prayer as they move forward.

At this 92-year-old congregation near the town’s one blinking red light, many members believe God allowed the Nov. 5 massacre to happen as — in Pomeroy’s words — “blood’s seed for revival.”

Those beliefs couldn’t be more different from those of the Florida teenagers who believe they can reform an American political culture that has resisted curbs on the availability of weapons.

This week, those students begged President Trump to support tougher gun control legislation, including bans on assault rifles.

Pastor Frank Pomeroy wears a pistol in a holster on his hip during Sunday worship at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Feb. 18, 2018. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Here in Sutherland Springs, a few days earlier at a Sunday morning Bible study, Pomeroy told members that for Christians, prayer, not protests, is the primary Christian response.

“When I see the aftermath of what’s happening in Florida, I thank God for your faith here,” said Pomeroy. “I am just thankful that we chose to lift up God, rather than man. Pray for those who are truly involved, not all the secondary people that are getting the noise on TV.”

That prayer has been constant and heartfelt: The names of the survivors and their families are listed in each week’s church bulletin. And numerous prayer services have been held — sometimes jointly with other churches — to support and strengthen the grieving and the wounded.

It’s not that the people of Sutherland Springs haven’t talked about guns. But mostly there have been debates about whether a church member with a gun might have stopped the shooter.

The temporary prefabricated building where the First Baptist Church congregation now worships in Sutherland Springs, Texas. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

“The main conversation is, ‘If this, or if that,'” said Judy Green, who manages the church’s food pantry. She and her husband were running an errand on the morning of the shooting and were instructed to stay in their car as they approached the church.

For Green, that resistance to engage the gun control debate is understood.

“It’s a Bible-based church,” she said.  “We study strictly out of the Bible.”

An outpouring of goodwill

On Nov. 5, a 26-year-old former U.S. Air Force airman drove to Sutherland Springs with a mission. He wanted to kill the mother of his estranged wife and take down as many others as possible. He failed on the first count. Michelle Shields wasn’t in church that day. But he succeeded on the second.

The assailant knew the church well and had attended a fall festival there less than a week before. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle, he sprayed the church with bullets during Sunday services, killing congregants, including Pomeroy’s daughter, Annabelle, whom they adopted at age 2.  The pastor and his wife were away that weekend.

Flags mark evidence on the lawn of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2017, a day after over 20 people died in a mass shooting. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

A local man shot the killer as he fled the scene. He was later found dead in his car from a self-inflicted gunshot wound about eight miles from the church.

Overnight, the rural unincorporated town in Wilson County, with its median household income of $40,000, was deluged with media from all over the world. Vice President Mike Pence paid a visit. Area churches and charities responded with an outpouring of food — pallets of water bottles, casseroles in aluminum trays, boxes of cookies — more than the congregation could ever consume.

After burying its dead, the church turned to tending the wounded.

The old, bullet-scarred sanctuary was turned into a memorial where people can come to pray or receive grief counseling. Around it, the chain-link fence has become a kind of shrine to those killed, adorned with banners, flowers, candles and stars.

Services now take place in a temporary, prefabricated sanctuary fitted with a wheelchair ramp.

The weekly prayer request list features the names of survivors and their families and appears in each church bulletin. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

The first few weekends after the shooting, well-wishers and members of other congregations thronged the church in solidarity, swelling the ranks. Services now average about 170, more than the church’s 140 members. Thirty new members have joined, more than replacing those that were killed.

The weekly bulletin exhorts members to pray for “healing and for peaceful rest and sleep” for the survivors. Its “prayer requests” listing of 22 survivors and their families remains the same week in, week out.

But the church has also installed security cameras and exterior lighting.

And more changes are on the way. On March 1, the church will review architectural drawings for a new permanent sanctuary. (The Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board is largely funding the project, expected to cost $1 to 1.5 million.)

Signs of redemption

Two weeks ago, a group of 22 women went on a “ladies retreat” in the Texas Hill Country paid for by a Southern Baptist camp and conference center.

Sherri Pomeroy, the pastor’s wife, acknowledged she didn’t want to go. But at a church service, she said the time away helped her come to terms with the massacre.

“God didn’t want this tragedy to happen,” she explained at a recent Sunday service. “He allowed this tragedy to happen. But when he puts all of his goodness together with this tragedy, that’s how he makes things work together. I didn’t want to believe that before I left.”

In this congregation, church members are searching for signs of redemption.

On a recent Sunday, the congregation welcomed back Juan “Gunny” Macias, the last person to be released from the hospital after the massacre. He walked into services with an IV drip draped over his walker.

The homes of seven other survivors are being remodeled to make them wheelchair accessible. Among them is Kris Workman, the church’s worship leader.

Workman, who plays lead guitar in the band, was shot twice; one bullet fractured his L2 vertebra; the other nestled in soft tissue in his hip. He can no longer walk but said he is recovering some muscle control in his legs.

On a recent Sunday, after leading the band in a mix of hymns (“The Old Rugged Cross”) and praise songs (“I Exalt Thee”), he sat beaming.

Kris Workman, the church worship leader at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was wounded in the November shooting and now uses a wheelchair. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

“The way I see it, the loss of control of my legs is just a small price to pay to see the revival and outpouring that has come from this,” Workman said. “What Satan intended for evil, God spun for his glory.”

Workman, who is 34, married, with a 3-year-old daughter, said he expects to return to work soon as a manager at Rackspace, a managed cloud computing company in Windcrest, north of San Antonio.

He credited the H-E-B grocery chain with sending out construction crews to build a ramp and remodel the bathroom in his home.

Workman echoes his pastor who spoke of “the blood seed that was spilled here for revival.” In recollecting the day of the shooting he said he saw God at work:

“Even while it was happening, I was able to see God saying, ‘Not this one. Spare this one. I’m taking this one home. This one’s coming home, too.’ When you can see God working that granularly, it just strengthens your faith so much. I’m just happy to be alive and happy to share my story.”

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

34 Comments

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  • “At this 92-year-old congregation near the town’s one blinking red light, many members believe God allowed the Nov. 5 massacre to happen as — in Pomeroy’s words — “blood’s seed for revival.”
    I could write some pages on that comment alone… the kind of “loving” “god” that “has a plan” and would “allow” something like that to happen, and who apparently has a need for “blood’s seed”.
    But I won’t, except to comment that It certainly indicates what kind of god is worshipped, and what kind and how little faith the pastor seems to have.
    The rest of the article is simply as head-shakingly obtuse as that one comment.

  • I wonder about a theology articulated that sees the hand of God working hand in hand with the banality of evil. I can only hope at some point he reassesses that understanding with the awareness that this sense was a response to coping with the violence and trauma of the situation

  • Doesn’t matter. The people in question aren’t allowing either shooters or naysayers to stop their ministry and/or their theology. Some solid Christians there.

  • I can’t help thinking that if one believes the hand of God is working hand-in-hand with evil, then that evil is doing the work of God. But if it is doing the work of God, how can it truly be evil. And if this kind of thing is the will of God, what does it say about God.

    The Adversary was allowed to torment Job with the deaths of all his children and the loss of all his property — apparently just to test his devotion. “No love, quoth he, but vanity sets love a task like that.”

    We are taught that evil ultimately will not be victorious. But the free will of humans can do a lot of evil that has nothing to do with working hand-in-hand with God.

  • And as the story of job demonstrates, god allows evil to happen togood people so that he could win a bet with satan.

    If god uses evil to accomplish good, then god is no better than evil. Which means there is simply no such thing as good or evil. How can we distinguish between evil done by god for good purposes and evil done by evil for evil purposes? Which means there is no such thing as a good god.

    Good god!!!!!

  • Genesis 50:20 English Standard Version (ESV)

    20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people[a] should be kept alive, as they are today.

  • Romans 8:28 – English Standard Version

    And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

  • I do believe that you believe “(t)here is simply no such thing as good or evil”.

    Of course the looks of horror on the faces of people who say those sort of things are recounted in the annals of the the French Revolution, Bolshevik Revolution, China, Cuba, et al when the bigger people who write those of things start executing the littler people who write those sorts of things.

    It just never turns out well.

    Btw, “(t)here is simply no such thing as good or evil” seems to cut the ground out from under any assertion of “minority rights”, unless the minority happens to have a couple of armored divisions at the ready.

  • Matthew 26:52 English Standard Version (ESV)

    52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.

  • Yeah, the whole bet thing really does seem to say we’re nothing but playthings in a game between God and Satan. (With Satan having access to heaven and God — so much for “cast out” — seems Michael forgot to bar the gates/)

    I think it really comes down to there’s so much we don’t know or understand about God — how can we? We interpret omniscient, omnipresent, all-powerful in terms of human understanding. Look at what’s been labeled as good throughout human history by persons of presumably good will. We do what we can, try to live as we believe or understand God wants us to. Or, with our free will, we do … otherwise.

  • It shows you just how ancient this story of job is.

    I not only don’t think we can know how god wants us to live, I don’t even think we can know that god has any desire forus to live in any particular way whatsoever. It’s what religion sells, of course. But I’m not about to take the entire morality of someone 2000 years ago, translated, edited, redacted, copied, mis translated as the “gospel” truth, though I can see some good in it.

    My goal is to be a good, kind, responsible person. Perfect? No.

  • Without second guessing what Ben actually believes, the first statement you cited above was the conclusion of prior related statements. His conclusion is similar as to one of the options raised and considered (but ultimately discarded as to the nature of God in the book When Bad tings Happen to Good People..

  • While, I never hope to understand losing a child to a gunman, killing the next, like the first killed your child, is not the answer.

  • “Religion allows people by he billions to believe things only a lunatic could believe on his own.” This remark by Sam Harris can find no better platform for the truth of his statement than the comments here.

  • “Pomeroy told members that for Christians, prayer, not protests, is the primary Christian response.”

    With all due respect to the losses suffered, having a reason to wear a gun standing in a pulpit is not a blessing, unless you’ve been praying for a reason to wear one. Feeding the hungry is a protest to hunger. Healing the sick is a protest to sickness. Comfort is a protest to pain. Repentance that is only a prayer and not a protest, is a unanswered prayer.

  • Hopefully not on duty. Isn’t he a noncombatant under international laws of war? (I also know chaplains who own personal firearms though).

  • Geneva convention allows chaplains and medical to carry weapons for use in self-defesne. Our nation has added a regulation that chaplains may not.

  • Why the personal attacks? Attacking the person instead of the idea only alienates the person.

    I personally think minorities should have the same rights as the majority. As we read in the book of James, “Whoever discriminates sins, and is convicted under the law as a transgressor.”

  • I wrote that four months ago.

    I have no idea at this point what was being said, whether it was a personal attack, or why I wrote it.

    Nor do I plan of going back and looking at it this late date.

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