Keep­ing faith

Com­mu­nity re­lies on church to cope with shoot­ing’s af­ter­math

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Sil­via Foster-Frau STAFF WRITER

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.”

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 al­ways has 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 sky 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 of­ten is 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 grand- daugh­ter 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 ‘Ev- ery­thing’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 be- fore, 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 af­ter­ef­fects. 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 14year-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.”

“Suther­land Sprung”

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 son­sin-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 well­timed 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 bike 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 school shoot­ing in May.

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 once 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.

“Breath by breath”

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 pur­ple pat­terned 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 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, and dis­trib­uted gifts that came 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 2year-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.”

“Light on the hill”

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 still is 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 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.”

Pho­tos by Lisa Krantz / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Pas­tor Frank Pomeroy com­forts his wife, Sherri, on what would have been their daugh­ter Annabelle’s 15th birth­day.

Mal­lory Yar­brough, Eve­lyn Hill and Reina Hol­combe play next to the new First Bap­tist Church that is be­ing built by the North Amer­i­can Mis­sion Board.

Pho­tos by Lisa Krantz / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

In Fe­bru­ary, Kris Work­man, who was shot in the back and par­a­lyzed, showed one of his scars to fel­low sur­vivor David Col­bath, who was shot eight times.

A bul­let tore through and dam­aged Col­bath’s dom­i­nant right arm. A de­voted marks­man, he had to learn how to shoot with his left hand.

Fred and Kath­leen Curnow wit­nessed the mas­sacre across from their home. Kath­leen, who suf­fers PTSD, wanted the fence for pro­tec­tion.

Gunny and Jen­nifer Ma­cias are greeted by David Moreno in April, two months af­ter Gunny re­turned to the church.

Pho­tos by Lisa Krantz / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

El­liott Jor­dan, 4, cen­ter, dances as the “praise team” sings dur­ing a Sun­day ser­vice in April. Ren­der­ings of the new church hang on the wall.

Ma­rina Pomeroy com­forts her mother, Sherri, as they visit the grave of her sis­ter Annabelle, who was killed at age 14.

LoneS­tar Hand­gun head in­struc­tor Jaime Cor­rea teaches an Ac­tive Shooter class to mem­bers of the First Bap­tist Church Safety Re­sponse Team.

Col­bey Work­man sings as she holds her daugh­ter, Eevee, 3. She’s with her sis­ter, Mor­gan, and her hus­band, Kris, at a Sun­day ser­vice.

Pho­tos by Lisa Krantz / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Zoe Zavala, 7, walks through the Pol­ley Man­sion af­ter be­ing crowned Hon­orary Lit­tle Miss dur­ing the Suther­land Springs Old Town Days Royal Court Pre­sen­ta­tion.

Ri­hanna Tris­tan, 10 (be­hind Zoe), was named Hon­orary Princess. Both girls sur­vived the church shoot­ing, but Zoe lost her grand­fa­ther and Ri­hanna her mother and two sis­ters.

Kaleb Pomeroy car­ries bal­loons to be re­leased at the grave of his sis­ter, Annabelle, on Oct. 21, which would have been her 15th birth­day. At right, their mother em­braces Kaleb’s daugh­ter.

Pho­tos by Lisa Krantz / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Fam­ily and friends gather at Annabelle Pomeroy’s grave, where bal­loons in dif­fer­ent shades of pur­ple, Annabelle’s fa­vorite color, were re­leased.

Michelle Shields kisses the urn hold­ing the ashes of her mother, Lula White, on July 2 be­fore spread­ing them in the surf from a jetty in Port Aransas. It would have been White’s birth­day.

With the new church ris­ing in the back­ground, Char­lene Uhl dec­o­rates the cross ded­i­cated to her daugh­ter, Ha­ley Krueger.

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