SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — The sprawling white tent was already packed with hundreds of mourners Sunday, some of them spilling outside beneath an overcast sky, by the time Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, took to the stage. He stood in front of a wooden cross wrapped in holiday lights.

At this moment a week earlier, with Pomeroy out of town, Devin Kelley entered the pastor’s small white church and started shooting the members of Pomeroy’s beloved congregation with an assault-style rifle. Twenty-six of them, including a pregnant woman’s unborn child, would die in the massacre.

In a tent erected on a baseball field a few blocks away, Pomeroy was again preaching, this time to a far larger congregation made up of victims, their family members, locals and outsiders who arrived from around the region to show their support for this tiny, heartbroken town.

“I know the name of every single person who lost their life that day, some of which were my best friends, and my daughter,” Pomeroy said, pausing to hold back tears as the crowd began to applaud and yell encouragement. “I guarantee you that they are dancing with Jesus today.”

Pomeroy told the crowd that his church, just days removed from being full of FBI crime scene investigators and the horrors of the largest mass shooting in Texas history, would reopen to the public.

“I haven’t seen this done in other catastrophes,” Pomeroy said. “But I want the world to know that that building will be open so that everyone who walks in there will know that the people who died lived for their lord and savior.”


Sutherland Springs, faced with unimaginable loss, has turned to its faith as its most potent coping mechanism. Instead of casting blame, or going into hiding or questioning why this tragedy befell them, this town has instead publicly looked to God, believing that there’s a reason for all of this. The victims, many here believe, are in a better place. Sorrow has quickly morphed into courage and resolve.

That began immediately after the Nov. 5 massacre, which took place during weekly Sunday services. Shellshocked residents began to gather at the town’s community center, and Mike Gonzales, a pastor and local activist, arrived with one question in mind.

“What time is the prayer vigil?” he said, tapping neighbors on their shoulders one by one. “Does anyone know where we’re going to pray?”

Nobody had an answer. Some told the 46-year-old retired Army warrant officer that it was too early to think about a vigil. Bodies were still lying in the grass outside First Baptist Church a block away.

Gonzales disagreed. He took a deep breath and yelled, “Excuse me, can I have your attention? There will be a prayer vigil at 7 p.m. tonight at the post office!”

Six hours later, in a parking lot illuminated by candles, Gonzales – clad in black and with a fresh military buzz cut – was surrounded by hundreds of mourners, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, as he led the first worship service since Kelley, 26, had slaughtered 25 First Baptist congregants, eight of them children and teenagers.


“I propose we take a pact, right here, in this small town, that evil will not prevail,” Gonzales said. “That right here in the heart of Texas, this community, Sutherland Springs in Wilson County, will be stronger than ever!”

“Amen,” the teary mourners replied.

At Gonzales’s impromptu gathering – and at multiple prayer vigils and memorials that followed, including one that featured Vice President Mike Pence and a “prayer strategist” – a similar sequence unfolded: sorrow-filled remembrances, vows of support, calls for faith and fiery condemnations of evil, followed by gospel music, shouts of “Hallelujah!,” streaming tears and hands reached high.


Absent from each event in a community that strongly believes in gun ownership and self-defense was any mention of firearms or their role in the massacre – Kelley was wounded and sent fleeing by a nearby resident with a rifle similar to his – replaced by a steady stream of people offering their “thoughts and prayers.”

The lack of discussion about guns and the use of the thoughts-and-prayers mantra drew strong reactions from the political left and the gun-control lobby.


Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., noted that Sutherland Springs victims “were praying when it happened.”

“They don’t need our prayers,” Jayapal wrote on Twitter. “They need us to address gun violence and pass sensible legislation.”

Many Sutherland Springs residents said they consider prayer a deep and concrete response to the tragedy.

The shooting was the result of a deranged individual, they said, not the type of weapon he used. To prevent another mass killing, they argued, society has to start by changing the culture that conditioned the killer. That starts with prayer, they said.


Several days after she survived the First Baptist Church shooting, Rosanne Solis holed up in her dimly lit trailer at the end of a quiet neighborhood street in Sutherland Springs. Recovering from a shoulder wound, Solis is pondering death as well, namely, how she narrowly avoided it.


The hydrocodone pills have numbed most of the physical pain, but the emotional pain has only just begun. She’s having trouble focusing, she said, her thoughts filled with horrific flashes from Sunday’s violence. Overall, she said, she’s not doing very well.

“I’m still shocked by the fact that all these children died. I knew all of them that were in there,” she said, before nodding toward her boyfriend, Joaquin Ramirez, who was grazed by a bullet inside the church. “I feel guilty because we survived and they didn’t. It’s God’s way, but I don’t understand God at all.”

Between trips to the doctor and to the store, she’s forced to change her bandages at least three times a day, and she’ll have permanent physical reminders of what happened in that church. “The doctors said it will take at least a year to heal,” she said. “The bullet went straight through and left a big, deep hole.”

But her spirituality, too, is now deeper, much as how many in Sutherland Springs feel.

“I think I believe in God more now,” she said. “We survived for a reason – God wants us to testify.”

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