SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — After a week of sorrow and loss, faith and resolve were reaffirmed in a big tent in a little town.
The First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, site of the worst mass shooting in Texas history, held a service Sunday as it has for decades. But this time the congregation gathered in a tent large enough to accommodate nearly everyone in the community and many others from nearby.
“I thank my Lord and my God that those 26 who are no longer with us are dancing in his presence now,” Pastor Frank Pomeroy told the more than 1,000 people who sat or stood through the service in this unincorporated farm and ranch town 30 miles southeast of San Antonio.
Pomeroy never spoke the name of Devin Kelley, 26, who burst into the old church in the center of town during the Nov. 5 service and started firing a semi-automatic rifle at the estimated 50 people inside. His rampage left 25 dead, including a pregnant woman whose baby did not survive, and 20 wounded.
Kelley died later of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after a gunfight with two men who pursued him after the church shooting.
The pastor’s voice was calm and steady as he urged people not to lose their faith or surrender to sadness. But when he spoke about the violence that also claimed the life of his 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, Pomeroy showed the strain.
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“Do not allow the lives that were lost or changed, to be in vain,” he said. Then his voice cracked, and he had to pause. The congregation stood to applaud. He regained his voice: “I know everyone who gave their life that day. Some of them were my best friends — and my daughter.”
The service, conducted in the community athletic fields, conjured images of a tent revival. The altar had a light cross flanked by candles. Rows of white folding chairs were separated by a wide center aisle. Pomeroy and others spoke with a preacher’s cadence, punctuated by spontaneous shouts from the congregation: “Amen!” “Praise Jesus!” “Hallelujah!”
Later Sunday, a temporary memorial was to open inside the church, where 26 empty chairs had been placed. It will be the first time the public is allowed back into the church.
Christians were not the only ones in attendance. Javaid Siddiqi, president of the Islamic Circle of North America, flew to Texas from his home in Kentucky to show support. “It was very overwhelming, it was very sad to see the loss of life of innocent people — women and children,” he told the USA TODAY Network. “Violence has no place in a house of worship, regardless of faith or creed.”
Reporters were allowed to observe the service but not to approach the worshipers and mourners. Photographers and videographers, kept outside in the rain, wrapped their equipment in waterproof protection.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, spoke briefly, praising the community’s faith and resilience. “This hurts,” he said.
After the service, Cornyn told reporters that the Air Force should have flagged Kelley’s violent history during his time in the military.
In view of Kelley’s record of domestic violence and other criminal acts, “this individual should not have been legally able to purchase a firearm,” Cornyn said. “We need to fix this broken background check system.”
He said he planned to introduce legislation requiring the armed services to swiftly enter military conviction information into databases that identify those unfit to buy weapons.
There was no talk of Kelley or gun politics where the worshipers gathered. Every folding chair in the tent was full. Many were occupied by mothers holding small children. During hymns (Amazing Grace and Good Good Father), those at the service stood, raised their arms and swayed. Many sang along softly and mournfully.
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Before the service began, Pomeroy accepted hugs outside the tent as worshipers filed in. He shook hands with his left hand clasped over his right, a gesture often reciprocated. Outside, armed law enforcers stood watch. Two officers with pistols on their hips guarded the tent’s entrance.
During the service, Pomeroy likened faith to an ongoing battle against evil and fear.
“Saints get wounded. Saints have scars,” said Pomeroy, who was out of town last Sunday when disaster struck his church.
He continued: “I submit to you today that just because we are wounded, doesn’t mean we turn back. Just because we lose a round to Satan, does not mean (we) quit. We should never give up the fight. I believe this wound hurts. We can’t allow this act that happened last weekend to keep us from church.”
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Follow John C. Moritz on Twitter: @JohnnieMo