Sutherland Springs lifted by influx of compassion

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (BP) -- Kris Workman, paralyzed during the melee at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, is leading worship from a wheelchair for the rural Texas congregation.

Joann Ward and two of her daughters were slain at Sutherland Springs when a gunman opened fire on a First Baptist Church worship service Nov. 5 in the Texas community near San Antonio.
Photo from GoFundMe
Ryland Ward, age 6, came home from the hospital Jan. 11 after multiple operations for four wounds inflicted by the gunman who killed 26 people -- including his mother and two of his sisters -- at First Baptist on Nov. 5.

Ryland -- riding in a fire truck in a police convoy -- returned to Sutherland Springs after a two-month hospitalization in San Antonio, 30 miles away.

"There are so many people stepping up who want to help," said Ted Elmore of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention -- from firemen and police in San Antonio to the SBTC and its churches across the state, the North American Mission Board and a San Antonio-based independent grocery chain and a leading roofing firm.

And certainly the people of rural Sutherland Springs and nearby communities are keenly involved despite the horrific losses suffered in their unincorporated community of 400 people.

First Baptist has formed a six-member restoration committee, including one member from a nearby town who was stirred to join the church after the massacre.

The committee also includes several First Baptist members described by Elmore as "wonderful, common sense laymen" along with a former associate pastor at the church.

Ryland Ward, whose mother and two sisters were killed in the Sutherland Springs massacre, receives a hero’s sendoff after two months of hospitalization and numerous surgeries at University Hospital in San Antonio.
Photo from GoFundMe
"That's the nature of this community," said Elmore, who participates in one or more conference calls each week with the committee and First Baptist pastor Frank Pomeroy, whose 14-year-old daughter Annabelle was among the fatalities at the hands of Devin Kelley who committed suicide shortly after driving away from the church property.

"Life has been forever changed for these folks, but in spite of the deepest hurts, they have embraced and said, 'The devil will not win,'" Elmore said as the SBTC's primary contact person with First Baptist in his work in the convention's pastor-church relations, field ministry and prayer strategy.

Also on-site for six weeks are Mike Landry, who works part-time with the SBTC in church revitalization, and his wife Connie, both certified grief counselors. Landry is assisting Pomeroy in pastoral ministry as needed and visiting people in the community to hear and help heal their anguish.

"The SBTC serves churches. We're there to serve Sutherland Springs in their recovery," Elmore said, noting, "All the decision-making is theirs, and we respect that."

Sutherland Springs Rebuild

The North American Mission Board, meanwhile, is taking the lead in the construction of a new worship center and education building for First Baptist, along with a memorial garden, retaining the firm of Myrick Gurosky & Associates in Birmingham, Ala., as general contractors.

"We think roughly it will be $1 million to $1.5 million," NAMB President Kevin Ezell said during a Feb. 6 meeting of the mission board's trustees.

"The construction company has worked with the church for free to come up with a design for new buildings and walked through it with pastor Pomeroy and the leaders they have appointed," Ezell said.

Funding-wise, he noted, "There has been such a desire to help among Southern Baptists and ... we will let churches know that if they want to give they can. If 1,500 churches were to give $1,000, that's $1.5 million. In the SBC family, everyone who wants to can be a part of that."

Churches and individuals can donate at Sutherland Springs Rebuild.

NAMB spokesman Mike Ebert said the range for the cost of construction stems from anticipated donated services from various contractors who will be working on the rebuild. It will be a full-fledged construction project with a start and end date that will not entail the removal of the former worship center, which is now a memorial, nor an adjacent education building, Ebert told Baptist Press. Decisions on those facilities will be made by First Baptist.

Visitors welcome

The church memorial, with white chairs for each of the 26 victims in a white interior patched and painted to cover the bullet holes, is being staffed by volunteers from churches in the local Gambrell Baptist Association and other churches in Texas, such as First Baptist Church in Karnes City, Valley Hi First Baptist Church in San Antonio and Christ Central Baptist Church in Robstown near Corpus Christi.

The memorial is open from 10 a.m. until 2 or 3 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

The volunteers greet visitors and "listen, pray with people and if opportunity permits share the Gospel," Elmore said. Pomeroy has reported more than 30 professions of faith. "Pastor Frank says it will remain open as long as people are getting saved. People have driven from various states and from Canada and one couple flew in from Germany to see the memorial," Elmore said.

First Baptist, meanwhile, is meeting in a modular unit with 170-plus padded chairs. Workman, the worship leader -- a young man who once was a race car driver -- fronts a praise band made up mostly of survivors or family members of victims in the Nov. 5 gunfire -- a band that Elmore said could lead music in lively and worshipful fashion anywhere.

The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention's assistance to First Baptist includes providing Pomeroy's salary for one year and a vacation for him and his wife for a time of healing later this spring and, in the community, counseling as requested by those who lost loved ones as well as those who were wounded, along with their family members.

Pomeroy and his wife Sherri will be guests at the SBTC's Feb. 26-27 Empower Evangelism Conference along with pastor Paul Buford and his wife Martha of River Oaks Baptist Church near Sutherland Springs which hosted the FBI, Texas Rangers, Red Cross and other agencies after the Nov. 5 melee.

Also ahead is an appreciation banquet for first-responders requested by First Baptist, with Elmore and Kevin Cornelius, pastor of First Baptist Karnes, now in the planning stages.

"There's no way you can repay the first-responders for what they did," Elmore said. "Their work was monumental." The gathering also will include grateful survivors and their families, with Elmore noting, "There's great healing in an appropriate hug."

Rallying to help

Among San Antonio-area businesses at the forefront of helping Sutherland Springs in the immediate aftermath of the killings were the H-E-B independent grocery chain founded by the late Howard Butt Sr. and the Beldon Roofing Company led by Brad Beldon.

H-E-B, through its Spirit of Giving charity, has built ramps for the injured at their homes that meet ADA standards and provided direct aid to survivors and family members of the deceased through donations made at check-out lines in their Texas stores.

Beldon took the lead in funding the restoration needed for the memorial and created a GoFundMe account that has raised $1.2 million from nearly 500 donors since setting an initial goal of $250,000 on Nov. 7.

Several other GoFundMe accounts have been created for the shooting victims, including one honoring 6-year-old Ryland Ward's mother Joann and two sisters who also were slain, Brooke, 5, who died in her mother's arms, and Emily, the middle of the family's five children. In addition to Ryland, his father Chris and his oldest sister Rihanna, 9, survived.

To GoFundMe donors, the Ward family wrote, "You have made a difference in how these children will grow up and face a life without their mother and siblings."

Art Toalston is senior editor of Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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