Frank Pomeroy, pastor at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, was away for the weekend when he received a text message alerting him that a gunman had just attacked the church during Sunday worship. Among the dead was his own daughter, Annabelle.
“By noon,” as Texas journalist Joe Holley writes in his new book recounting the massacre and its aftermath, “Frank was in his truck barreling down I-35, every mile a rolling kaleidoscope of memories … [He] began to separate out the feelings of pain and desperation that threatened him from the practical steps he knew he had to take in the next few hours, the next several days.”
Holley, columnist for the Houston Chronicle and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his columns on Texas gun culture, was at a book signing when he learned about the shooting. Driving home afterwards, he heard all the terrible details on the radio: “A Baptist church. Multiple deaths. Sutherland Springs.”
Soon enough, a clearer picture of the carnage—and an outline of the trials to come—was emerging: “Twenty-five friends and loved ones had lost their lives … A pastor who knew and cared about those broken people needed to preach their funerals. Twenty of their friends and loved ones were in area hospitals, some still fighting for their lives; they needed visiting and their families needed consoling.”
When Holley saw the exit for I-35 he began driving toward the small town. He would spend the next year of his life there, remaining long after most reporters had left. The resulting book, Sutherland Springs: God, Guns, and Hope in a Texas Town, paints a picture of tragedy, despair, faith, and resilience. But Holley also shows the systemic failure of American society to protect places like Sutherland Springs, one that left the small congregation totally alone and exposed to terror.
‘I Choose Forgiveness’
What happened within the four walls of First Baptist Church on November 5, 2017 was a paroxysm of violence unlike anything any human, save soldiers in the fiercest of combat, ever encounters. For the handful of worshipers trapped by the attacker, it must have felt like the devil himself had appeared in their midst, tearing apart the very fabric of reality.
Holley’s re-creation of gunman Devin Patrick Kelley’s rampage is as shattering an experience reading a book as you’re likely to ever have.
Waves of bullets, like swarming angry hornets, streamed through the walls and shattered windows …
[Kelley] moved to the right side of the sanctuary and began firing single shots into people huddled beneath pews. He was killing at point-blank range …
[Julie Workman] could tell he was wearing military gear, all black … He seemed to target children, aiming at their heads. Precious little ones she thought of as her own were being pulverized before her eyes.
The shooter moved toward Joann Ward, thirty, who was lying between pews atop three of her children, like a mother hen sheltering her chicks. He shot Joann and killed her, and then kept firing through her body to make sure he killed her children.
Four times bullets burned into [Farida Brown’s] legs. Four shots hit the woman to her right. Farida held the woman’s hand as the bullets slammed into her. She tried to comfort her, assuring her that soon it would be over, that soon she would be in heaven. The woman lay still, tears streaming down her face.
The carnage continued until 26 members of the church were dead.
Holley spends considerable time recounting the shared experiences in the life of the church before the shooting occurred: the potlucks, the Bible studies, the weekend and weeknight services, the home visits, the joy of their worship, the communal way they raised their children and cared for their sick.
Many of the activities centered on sharing meals together: breakfast before Sunday worship, dinner before Thursday Bible class, the Pomeroys cooking Thanksgiving dinner, Pastor Frank manning the barbecue pit for Vacation Bible School. In most cases, calling a church community an extended family can sound fairly cliché, but in the case of Sutherland Springs it was often literally true. As Holley soon discovered, “interfamily marriage entanglements make it hard for newcomers to figure out who’s related to whom.”
He adds, “They worship and study the Bible together several times a week, they eat together, they vacation together, go on hunting trips together, watch the Super Bowl together. Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year, their lives layer with familiarity, interdependence, and affection.”
Holley admits that he thought he’d find relationships broken by the tragedy, and he was surprised when “their community, their ‘communality,’ held firm. The remnant found strength in its faith and common purpose.” They would need every last thread of strength these bonds afforded. “As the weeks passed,” Holley continues,
I saw people laugh and joke and enjoy themselves. I saw children and adults come to church one Sunday morning dressed like pirates, greeting each other with a fearsome “Aargh.”
I saw happiness break through often. And, just as frequently, I saw sadness. I saw people wander down the aisles of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and suddenly stop and embrace someone, tightly, in tears, for minutes at a time.
The faith, trust, and resilience the congregation exhibited over the following months, as members began to reassemble the fragments of their broken lives, is simply unfathomable. As Holley recalls, “I don’t know how many times I heard, in sermons, prayers, and supplications, in interviews and conversations, some version of the following: We don’t know why it happened, but we trust that God has a plan, and someday we’ll understand.”
It is difficult for an outsider to hear these expressions of faith and forgiveness without a profound sense of disbelief, and Holley admits his difficulty with these conversations. “At first I found it incredible, almost infuriating … and yet who was I to question the depth and sincerity of their belief—and their grief. I could only listen and try to understand.” He adds:
Still, their suffering and their soul searching were nothing if not profound—and profoundly in the tradition of humankind’s age-old dilemma. They distilled the ancient existential questions into one agonizing word, the word long-suffering Job uttered in the midst of his inexplicable agony: Why? Their answer—or rather their un-answer—could be distilled in one word, as well: Trust.
Perhaps most stunning is how faith led the members of First Baptist to forgive the man who brought this horror upon them. As Holley reports, at a Bible study held after the shooting, a member named Elizabeth Briggs asked, “Should we include the forgiveness of that man who to me was demon-possessed? Should we have a cross up there for him?” She and other members answered with a resounding yes.
The church placed blame for their suffering directly at the feet of a figure familiar to evangelicals across the earth: Satan. As Pastor Frank said to his congregation, “We must be doing some real bottom-kicking; otherwise, he would have passed us by.”
At a service six months after the shooting, he preached, “There shall be life. I’m not saying it’s simple. I’m not saying it’s easy. But I’m saying that God has given us the ability to do so. I choose life. I choose peace. I choose forgiveness.”
‘Do Your Duty’
In recreating the events that led to the attack, Holley shows that the violence at Sutherland Springs was the end result of a systemic collapse that enabled Kelley, the attacker, to wield weapons he never should have been allowed to legally possess. Most infuriating is the incompetence of the United States Air Force, which failed to report Kelley, a former enlistee, to the FBI for domestic assault and child abuse on multiple occasions.
Instead, Kelley was able to purchase the assault rifle and enough ammunition to unleash more than 700 rounds, multiplying exponentially the carnage inside the small sanctuary.
In addition to the failures of the Air Force, Holley mentions two others incidents after Kelley’s discharge, related to animal cruelty and sexual assault, that were “serious enough to block a gun purchase.” Local authorities neglected to investigate either case.
The cruelest cut of all occurred during the attack itself, when victims repeatedly dialed 911 and got no response. First responders didn’t arrive until after Kelley had fled the scene.
In the seconds after the shooting ended, Julie Workman, a nurse, began moving from victim to victim, looking for people she could help. Holley vividly recreates the scene:
The first seven people she approached were dead. She got to Brooke Ward; the five-year old was beyond help. Julie began screaming.
From several pews away, Gunny [Macias, a retired Marine sergeant] rose up. He was drenched in blood. “Julie!” he ordered. “Do your duty!”
“Let me cry and scream over this baby,” she said to herself, maybe to Gunny. “Then I’ll do what I’m trained to do.”
She went back to work. Twice more, anguish overwhelmed her. Twice more, Gunny rose up and ordered her back to work. “Julie! Do your duty!”
In the end, Julie Workman, the other members of the church, and a neighbor across the street were the only ones who did. That neighbor was Stephen Willeford, who heard the rapid fire of Kelley’s weapon and ran outside, clutching his own assault rifle. In a scene Holley renders in heart-stopping detail, Willeford shouted to get Kelley’s attention and shot him twice, critically wounding him before the gunman sped off in a Ford Expedition.
Undoubtedly, lives were saved by the bravery of Willeford, the quintessential “good guy with a gun.” But of course this only raises the question of whether there are legal reforms that might keep guns away from the bad guys before the good guys are obliged to come to the rescue. Is the unrestricted right to own weapons, specifically assault rifles designed to inflict maximum damage to the human body, worth leaving the door open to the kind of mayhem that played out in Sutherland Springs? It is impossible to read Holley’s book without considering how many religious Americans regard the right to own firearms not just as a constitutional guarantee but as something of a divine imperative.
Among the townspeople of Sutherland Springs, the conviction that gun control wouldn’t curb violence was widespread, even after the shooting. These are gun people. Pastor Frank wears a pistol on his hip band when he stands behind the pulpit. Speaking to Focus on the Family founder James Dobson on his national radio show Family Talk, shooting survivor David Colbath applied the “good guy with a gun” principle to issues of school safety. If you “don’t want armed teachers and armed personnel in there,” he said, “then you’re [telling] me as a school district or whoever that you don’t want people that are armed protecting our kids….You show me how you’re going to protect them. Your way is not working.”
Within this gun-friendly consensus, however, there was room for a few notes of hesitancy. Colbath conceded, in Holley’s telling, that “law-abiding gun owners need to resist the NRA’s all-out obstinance.” And as pastor Frank told NPR, “I am one of the few that do believe that there’s not much use for automatic weapons in the hands of civilians.”
For his own part, Stephen Willeford, who was invited to the State of the Union address and spoke at the NRA’s national convention after his heroics outside the church, remained fiercely pro-gun, telling Holley, “I met [the attacker] with the very same gun that he had. There’s only one thing that stops a bad guy. That’s a good guy.”
That’s a great quote for the evening news. Unfortunately, it overlooks certain facts about the United States, where massive gun ownership numbers go hand in hand with elevated rates of gun-related deaths, measured against many nations where tighter gun restrictions exist. Furthermore, as Holley details, mass shootings occur with alarming frequency in Texas, whose gun laws are among the most permissive in the nation.
Not everyone affected by the shooting was as sanguine about Texas gun culture as Willeford and most residents of Sutherland Springs. Kati Wall, a teacher who lost the grandparents who raised her in the attack, published an editorial in the Dallas Morning News urging Texas Governor Greg Abbott to consider various gun-control and mental-health measures, including stronger background checks. She pushed government leaders to “value the lives of the American people over gun lobbies,” the better to “encourage common sense conversations that shut down the extremists.”
By carefully reconstructing the details of the shooting at First Baptist and faithfully observing the church’s long journey of mourning and recovery, Holley’s book makes its own important contribution to state and national debates over gun control. Decades of inaction amid recurring episodes of tragedy cast doubt on our willingness to embrace more forceful restrictions. Perhaps Sutherland Springs can renew our sense of urgency.
John B. Graeber is a writer living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose work has appeared at Curator Magazine, The Blue Mountain Review, Ekstasis Magazine, Nooga.com, and Fathom Magazine. His poetry has been featured on Chattanooga's local NPR affiliate. He is also co-founder of Tributaries, a literary newsletter that explores the inspiration behind great writing. Follow him on Twitter: @jbgraeber
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