Sutherland Springs community gathers to pray, heal
FLORESVILLE, Texas (BP) -- "We take care of our own," stated Frank S. Page, formerly a Texas pastor, as he and Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines and his wife Donna spent three days helping to serve families distraught over the Nov. 5 massacre of half of the congregation of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.
In the hours following the Sunday morning massacre by a deranged gunman from New Braunfels who eventually took his own life, local ministers accepted the SBTC offer to host a community-wide prayer meeting at nearby Floresville Independent School District's Eschenburg Field, setting local pastors free to minister to the flock of the targeted church and their extended family of God.
A reported shooting incident at a nursing home a half-mile away, chilly temperatures and the threat of rain did not deter an estimated 2,500 or more area residents and more than 100 media representatives from attending the prayer gathering Wednesday evening (Nov. 8) in the school district where several of the slain children attended school.
Abbott extended sympathy to the families of the victims, calling the Sutherland Springs tragedy inexplicable, yet confirming that "there is only one source that has the answers, and that is God Almighty."
Calling the evening's community prayer service "righteous and rightful," Abbott proclaimed Sunday, Nov. 12 as a day of prayer across the state for Texans to unite to pray for those affected by the "horrific, inexplicable evil."
"Even though anguish and sorrow hang over the community, we will not be overcome by evil. Together we will overcome evil with good. You all have already shown that," Abbott encouraged the crowd, describing his experiences with the affected families Sunday afternoon and with the community at a Sunday night prayer vigil.
"Love will conquer evil. You left me inspired. Hours before that [vigil] your community saw the very face of evil. Hours later, you reflected the very grace of God. You are a demonstration of God's grace across this entire world," Abbott said.
Pence thanked Abbott for his inspiring words and leadership, adding that he and his wife Karen were "deeply humbled" to be in the company of the other government officials, yet voicing his highest praise for the victims and families: "You honor us with your presence."
"Words fail when saints and heroes fall," Pence said. "Your testimony of Christian love is inspiring the nation," he said, adding a message of support from President Trump: "The American people are with you."
Describing the tragedy as the "worst mass shooting in a place of worship in American history," Pence reminded the audience that the congregation of First Baptist had come together last Sunday "to join hearts and hands in worship and prayer" before the killing of 26, including nine children, victims whose "cherished names" will live forever in the hearts of friends and family and be "enshrined in the hearts of every American."
Pence specifically mentioned victims such as 16-year-old Haley Krueger, who had planned to be a neonatal nurse, high school sweethearts Shani and Robert Corrigan whose son had died a year before and the Holcombe family who lost eight members -- voicing "the deepest sympathies" to the families "of all of the fallen."
The vice president also praised first responders, medical personnel and Stephen Willeford and Johnny Langendorff who pursed the shooter, calling them "Texas heroes" who likely saved the lives of others.
Pence praised Sutherland Springs pastor Frank Pomeroy, who, while grieving the loss of his daughter, could still say to the world: "Lean on the Lord rather than your own understanding. I don't understand, but I know my God does."
"Whatever animated the evil that descended on that church Sunday," Pence said, "if the attacker's desire was to silence the testimony of faith, he failed. The voice of faith, the witness of faith, in that small church in that small town now echoes across the world....
"Faith is now and always has been our source of strength and the summit of our national life. And I believe that faith has never been more important to the future of America," Pence said, calling on Americans to fill the places of worship to "overflowing" this Sunday and reminding that we are "one nation, under God, indivisible."
Frank Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee who once led a church in Fort Worth, quoted from John 10:10, telling the crowd, "Three days ago you saw the work of the evil one to steal and to kill and to destroy, but in a moment you're going to hear about life," referring to the Gospel invitation to be led by Steve Gaines.
"As the nation is watching, may they hear words of life and life abundant," Page prayed. "We know it is found through Jesus Christ."
He encouraged families who lost loved ones by noting, "Southern Baptists are going to pay for the funerals of those in the church because we want to take care of our own." The North American Mission Board in coordination with the SBTC has offered to cover that cost using funds pledged by an anonymous donor.
Gaines, speaking on behalf of nearly 50,000 Southern Baptist churches across America, told the audience, "If you live long enough you will go through a storm, sickness, tragedy or losing a loved one." Looking over to the Pomeroys seated next to his wife, Gaines said the only explanation for the horrendous shooting is in recognizing the world is filled with sin.
He preached extemporaneously from the Sermon on the Mount which tells of "the greatest man who ever lived" delivering "the greatest sermon ever preached."
Gaines said, "Jesus was telling these precious people He dearly loved that storms are going to come, the rain is going to fall. Storms come. Winds blow. They slam against your life," he said, adding, "That's exactly what happened at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs -- a storm slammed against their church. They lost half of their congregation of 50 people worshiping the Lord when all of a sudden from the outside bullets were flying at just the right level as people were falling."
Having spent several hours hearing that storm described by the Pomeroys, Gaines described them as "the salt of the earth, some of the godliest people I have ever met. Thank God for this shepherd who loves his sheep."
Looking over to the several dozen grieving relatives of the victims, Gaines quietly said, "But out of this storm, Jesus Christ will work in all of the lives of the family members."
Offering further comfort, he added, "I don't know what last thing those people saw, but I do know the moment their spirit and soul left their body they saw the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. They won't be able to come back to us, but you can go to them....
"How can this tragedy in any way lead to anything good?" Gaines asked. "What if you gave your heart to Jesus Christ?" in offering a Gospel invitation to which several came forward in professions of faith and others for prayer and counseling.
SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards quoted Romans 8:31-39 to describe how God conquered death. He prayed specifically for Frank and Sherri Pomeroy, asking God to use their close friends to minister and bless them and a support group of pastors "to help them through this valley."
"May all believers be emboldened to share the Gospel -- the only thing with the power to end this type of violence -- and give God the glory," Richards said.
Sherri Bays, superintendent of Floresville school district, was one of several community leaders who spoke to the gathering.
"Help us to remember that during the saddest and troublesome times of our lives that You are here to carry us through," Bays prayed. "Be with us Lord to feel Your presence. Help us not to succumb to doubt, but help us to have faith that Your will be done."
Scott Pomeroy, student pastor at Oak Hills Community Church in Floresville and brother of the Sutherland Springs pastor, asked the Holy Spirit to "comfort all of us in need."
Following the service, Frank Pomeroy told the Southern Baptist TEXAN that the 26 parishioners killed did not die in vain because their testimonies are shining the light to a dark world in need of Christ.
"Some of them -- I can guarantee you -- they would say if one person, anywhere in the world would come to know Christ by this, it was worth it. So I would say if you haven't accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, that's what you need to do, and one soul coming to Christ makes this all worthwhile."