Saturday marked exactly six months since a gunman stormed into First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs and left 26 people dead. However, the small town observed the day not with sorrow but with a sense of rebirth as they broke ground at the site of their new church building.
First Baptist Church Pastor Frank Pomeroy leads a group on a prayer walk around the church where the shooting occurred in November. Then, he leads them across an adjacent lot that’s been vacant for many years. A Christian rock band is playing.
“Father God, we just come before you this morning humbly to proclaim your righteousness,” Pomeroy said.
He’s carrying bread and red juice, symbolic of the body and blood of Christ. He also carries some olive oil.
“So as we pour this oil upon the ground this morning, what we are actually doing today is asking God’s Holy Spirit – the power of the Holy Spirit that indwells those of us who know Jesus, as their Lord and savior – to indwell this land, to indwell this place,” Pomeroy said.
They’re blessing the vacant lot where they will build their new church, next to the old one, which has served as a memorial since the shooting.
There’s a massive tent set up on the lot, filled with hundreds of people. They are the survivors of the shooting, relatives of victims, and other members of the Sutherland Springs community. A dozen ceremonial shovels are lined up at the front.
During the memorial service before the dedication ceremony, the bell of First Baptist Church rings 26 times. Once for each victim.
Their names are read aloud by the pastor’s wife, Sherri Pomeroy.
“We’ve purposely planned this ground breaking on today’s date to help us to remember the celebrate the lives our friends and family lived not to dwell on the manner in which they died,” she said.
The Pomeroys’ 14-year-old daughter Annabelle was killed in the shooting.
Sherri read the names through tears: “’Lou’ White, Robert Marshall, Karen Marshall, Annabelle, Bob Corrigan, Shani Corrigan, Peggy Warden, Dennis Johnson, Sarah Johnson, Keith Braden, Joann Ward, with Emily and Brooke.Haley Kruger, Teresa and Richard Rodriguez, Karla and Bryan Holcombe, Tara McNulty, Danny Holcombe and Noah, Crystal Holcombe, with Greg, and Emily and Megan, and Carlin Brite ‘Billy Bob’ Holcombe.”
The last name recited would have been the name of Crystal Holcombe’s unborn child.
The ceremony is one of unity and compassion, said Frank Pomeroy, who told crowd of about 200 people that it wasn’t about a building.
“I believe that God is going to use the buildings, he’s going to use the facilities, he’s going to use the parking lot, he’s going to use the tree that grows in the midst in the parking lot, whatever it is he’s is going to use it for it his glory — if we remember our sanctuary is in him,” he said. “And, praise God, we’ll have the young people, we’ll have the middle aged, we’ll have the elderly people, but this will be a lighthouse on the hill in the midst of Wilson County not because of us, but because of him.”
It will take a little less than a year to build the new church, which will have about 250 seats.
Some of the materials used to build it will be donated, and the North American Mission Board, an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, will pick up the rest of the costs.
The first people to dig into the ground are the survivors and relatives of the victims. Those in the audience cheered as they turned the first dirt.
Among the survivors is Kris Workman. He was in the church when the shooting began.
“I am the worship leader. I was the worship leader on Nov. 5. I was actually hit by the shooter twice — once in my side and once in my spine in the L2 vertebrae — and that’s rendered me as a paraplegic for the foreseeable future.”
He says he has faith that God will help him find meaning in the tragedy.
“This is what God does. We read in the Bible the stories of bad things that happen, and then God takes them and turns them and spins them for good,” he said. “We are very much like one of those stories in the Bible where God has taken a really bad situation — what happened here on Nov. 5 — and he’s sent his people who are called by his name all across the country and all across the world to pray for us and bless us.”
Since the shooting, Sunday services have been in a temporary building set up near the original church.
Inside is a collection of artwork sent to Sutherland Springs from throughout the U.S. One painting depicts the victims as angels.
After the shooting, community members said a strong religious faith in Sutherland Springs, which was tested like never before. This community of 400 people will rely on that faith as they try move forward together, rebuild together and heal together.