SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (BP) - Southern Baptists ministering in the wake of what some have called the deadliest church shooting in U.S. history say they've witnessed "God at work" despite the 26 dead and some 20 others wounded at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Local pastors and field personnel with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) began providing grief counseling within hours of the shooting at First Baptist's morning worship service Nov. 5. Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines and SBC Executive Committee President Frank S. Page plan to arrive in Sutherland Springs Nov. 7 to offer prayer and encouragement. SBTC executive director Jim Richards arrived Monday.
On behalf of the SBC, the North American Mission Board has offered to cover funeral expenses for all shooting victims in coordination with the SBTC, NAMB confirmed.
First Baptist Pastor Frank Pomeroy, who was out of town when the shooting occurred and whose 14-year-old daughter Annabelle was among the dead, told reporters the church's tragedy will exalt Christ.
"Christ is the one who's going to be lifted up," Pomeroy said at a Monday news conference. "That's what I'm telling everybody. You lean into what you don't understand. You lean into the Lord ... Whatever life brings to you, lean on the Lord rather than your own understanding. I don't understand, but I know my God does. And that's where I'll leave that."
Pomeroy's wife, Sherri, who also was out of town during the shooting, expressed thanks for an "outpouring of love" by friends, community members and even strangers. She added that "as much tragedy as" Annabelle's death "entails for our family, we don't want to overshadow the other lives lost yesterday."
"We lost more than Belle yesterday," Sherri Pomeroy said. "One thing that gives me a sliver of encouragement is the fact that Belle was surrounded yesterday by her church family that she loved fiercely, and vice versa. Our church was not comprised of members or parishioners. We were a very close family. We ate together, we laughed together, we cried together and worshiped together.
"Now most of our church family is gone, our building probably beyond repair and the few of us that are left behind lost tragically yesterday. … Please don't forget Sutherland Springs," Sherri Pomeroy said.
The shooting began at approximately 11:20 a.m. local time, when Devin Kelley, 26, allegedly fired a semiautomatic rifle at the outside of the church building before entering and methodically firing at worshipers as he paced through the room, The New York Times reported.
Local Wilson County Sherriff Joe Tackitt said "nearly everyone" in the room "had some type of injury," according to CNN. The dead ranged from an unborn baby in its mother's womb and an 18-month-old to a 77-year-old, The Times reported. At least eight of the dead were members of one family.
When Kelley exited the church, he reportedly exchanged gunfire with a bystander and was pursued in a high-speed car chase by the bystander and another local resident, according to media reports. The chase ended when Kelley crashed his car, where authorities later found him dead.
Kelley allegedly shot himself at some point, The Times reported, but authorities don't know if the self-inflicted wound caused his death. A "domestic situation" may have motivated the killing spree, according to media reports, and his ex-wife’s grandmother was among the dead.
Gaines, pastor of Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., told Baptist Press SBC leaders want to help First Baptist however they can.
"Yesterday as we prayed at Bellevue for the families of those slain and also the others who were wounded at First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs," Gaines said in written comments, "I sensed the need to go there and try to minister to the pastor and his wife and their devastated congregation. I discussed it with Frank Page and Jim Richards, and we all agreed to go and help any way we possibly can. Our Southern Baptist family grieves with this beloved church and the community it serves. Our prayers are ascending steadily to God's throne of grace. May God bring healing and hope to these that are hurting."
Page said he and Gaines hope to "show our love" for the Pomeroys, congregation and town.
"Both Dr. Gaines and I had other commitments this week in state conventions, but prayed together and felt led of God to go see if we can minister in any way, however small, in that terrible setting," Page told BP. "The First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, represents who we are as Southern Baptists -- a conservative, multi-generational church led by a bivocational, godly pastor. [The church] reflects the core of who we are. I call Southern Baptist churches to pray for these dear people."
SBTC field ministry strategist Mitch Kolenovsky told BP a sister church some three miles away -- River Oaks Baptist Church -- knew about the shooting almost immediately because the congregation's first responders all were called to First Baptist during River Oaks' morning service.
River Oaks altered its service and began to pray. Soon, it sent pastor Paul Buford to help comfort survivors.
Initially, friends and family members of victims gathered at a small community center, where eight or nine Southern Baptist pastors from the local Gambrell Baptist Association offered counseling and prayer, Kolenovsky said.
Eventually, River Oaks opened its facility as a shelter for family members. Disaster relief chaplains from the SBTC and the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) were on site into the early Monday-morning hours to provide grief counseling and continue to minister in the area.
Both First Baptist and River Oaks cooperate with the SBTC. River Oaks also cooperates with the BGCT.
Local pastors who cooperate with the BGCT also are ministering in Sutherland Springs, the BGCT told BP.
BGCT executive David Hardage said in a statement, "On behalf of our entire Texas Baptists family, I extend my deepest condolences to the church family of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, the community, and all who lost loved ones during yesterday’s tragedy. We join others in prayer, and trust that whatever happens, the Lord is our salvation and our stronghold."
Kolenovsky said all the local ministry efforts have evidenced "God at work through his church."
Richards told Fox News Nov. 5 the shooting was "spiritual warfare" and a "demonic attack."
Spiritual warfare often "takes the form of physical violence," Richards said. "It's heartbreaking and horrific."
However, "this will not stop the Gospel of Christ," Richards said. "It will not stop the godly people who seek to serve the Lord there. So we're coming alongside them in every way we possibly can."
Providentially, Frank Pomeroy's comments to reporters following the shooting echoed remarks he made during a sermon the week before.
Preaching from Proverbs 3:5-6, Pomeroy, a motorcycle enthusiast, told of riding his Harley Davidson to church that morning with his daughter and compared leaning into turns with trusting God through life's difficult times.
"God's understanding is far greater" than ours, Pomeroy said according to a recording of his Oct. 29 sermon. "There may be things going on that you don't understand, but you still need to do what God is calling you to do ... Leaning into God is the way we should go, even if it does not make sense, like leaning into a turn."
A community prayer gathering is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the football stadium at nearby Floresville High School.