Hope rises from the ashes of heartbreak a year after Sutherland Springs
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS — One year after the deadly shooting that claimed 26 lives, the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs held a service Nov. 4 to memorialize the lives lost and bring the small town one step closer to healing.
The 600-resident town lost 4 percent of its population Nov. 5, 2017, when a 26-year-old New Braunfels man opened fire on the church. For 91 years prior, the small church served the community with religious services and celebrations. Today, it is a memorial for those who lost their lives within its walls. The inside of the First Baptist Church has been painted entirely white. Twenty-six white chairs adorned with red roses and gold lettering eternalizes where each victim prayed that morning.
At the community-and-church-hosted event, Gov. Greg Abbott, along with other politicians, guest pastors, out-of-town visitors and residents, paid tribute to the victims. Abbott visited Sutherland Springs after the shooting. Church leaders said he has been continuously present in the community and thanked him for his unwavering support.
“The horrific shooting that took place here could’ve ripped this community apart. But it didn’t,” Abbott said. “While we may never fully understand why these things happen, we know it is through Him that we can overcome these challenges.”
Still, the Sutherland Springs community is devoted to faith, as proven by visitors and churchgoers at Sunday morning’s service. Outside, the church’s marquee displays a proclamation of perseverance: “Evil did not win!” The First Baptist Church’s pastor, Frank Pomeroy, invited Ted Elmore of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention to speak to the congregation.
“A memorial is a message. It has a purpose, it has a meaning,” Elmore said. “Today we gather on this anniversary day to give meaning to what happened a year ago. Grief is real. Tears are real. Tears are expressions of love. It’s not just the sadness for what we have missed and the sadness of our loss, though that’s certainly a part of it. But every tear shed is shed because you love somebody. That’s a good thing. That’s meaning. God is turning those tears into triumph in the First Baptist Church of the community of Sutherland Springs.”
Life-long Sutherland Springs resident Alice Garcia said as a part of the Sutherland Springs Community Association, she and her family helped organize the town’s community center for the weeks following the massacre. She was in awe of the global response they received.
“My husband and I were the primary contacts for the community at that time,” she said. “We had the community center open for about two and a half weeks, and during that time my family were all there volunteering. We took in donations, flowers, prayers. We had people coming in from all over the world, showing their gratitude and support for our community. It was very heartfelt, just knowing that we had the support of not only our community and surrounding areas but the world.”
Among the out-of-town visitors was Lloyd Johnson of California. Johnson said God led him to Sutherland Springs last year, where he met the Garcia family at the community center. He came back this year to help them with the memorial.
“Anytime anybody can help, that’s great,” Johnson said. “Even if it’s just a kind word – anything helps. We have to pray and really be there for people. We are lacking true human connections nowadays.”
Pastor Mark Collins was the associate pastor at Sutherland Springs for 15 years before moving to a church in Yorktown. He has remained involved with the church and the Sutherland Springs community. Collins said after the shooting, church leaders wanted to reopen the church as a sign of hope and perseverance.
“When the FBI turned this facility back over to us, we didn’t want to give this ground to Satan,” Collins said. “Not even for one Sunday. A construction company heard what we wanted to do and they brought a team of 33 men. They worked 72 hours and rebuilt the church as the memorial you see today. The next Sunday, we reopened it.”
Sunday Mass is now celebrated in a trailer a few yards away from the memorial. Behind both, mesh screens attempt to conceal the unfinished structure of the new church, more than double the size of the original. The roof of the new building towers over the surrounding fence. Collins said the terrain for the new church was acquired through one of God’s miracles.
“One of the victims was the person who took my place, the preacher that was killed,” Collins said. “Carla, his wife, was also killed. This lot that was behind the church had been for sale for nearly 20 years. We always wanted to buy it, but it was too expensive. Carla would go out and prayer-walk along that piece of property. People told her she would never be able to afford that. She would say, you’re not going to have to buy it; God will give it to you. In a nutshell, that’s what happened. We call it Carla’s corner. The new building will sit on that ground that she prayed one day would belong to the church.”
At the event, San Antonio Rep. Joaquin Castro said he visited Sutherland Springs with Rep. Henry Cuellar after the shooting. Sunday, he said he came back to let Sutherland Springs know that San Antonio is keeping them in their hearts. In order for a tragedy like this one to not happen again, Castro said there are preventative measures Congress could take.
“I think sometimes we’re drawn into this false choice of whether it’s a gun issue or a mental health issue,” Castro said. “Really, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t pursue both: more mental health services and to take weapons of war out of the hands of people who may be facing mental health challenges.”
As the memorial ended, neighbors stayed to share their faith for a moment longer. Some wandered behind the church to sit with 26 crosses adorned with letters, flowers and stuffed animals. The streets that were crowded with hundreds of journalists only a year ago have now settled to a familiar stillness Sutherland Springs had known for more than 150 years.