Mission Lab 2018

SBTC and SBC leaders minister to Sutherland Springs community

November 6th, 2017 / By: David Roach & Tammi Ledbetter / comments

SBTC and SBC leaders minister to Sutherland Springs community

Screen capture from ABC News on Twitter.

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas—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, and are assisting with a community-wide prayer meeting set for Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. at the football stadium in nearby Floresville.

SBTC field ministry strategist Mitch Kolenovsky told Baptist Press a sister church some three miles away -- River Oaks Baptist -- 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 its pastor, Paul Buford, to help comfort survivors.

Kolenovsky said all the local ministry efforts have evidenced "God at work through his church."

SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards appealed for prayer hours after the shooting, seeking “God’s mercy and comfort on those who are grieved and those who are wounded.” He and his wife, June, along with SBTC Pastor/Church Relations Director Tony Wolfe headed to the town Nov. 6, planning to join a local gathering of pastors the next day with Ted Elmore, associate director for PCR.

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. (See related story on Pomeroy’s Oct. 29 sermon.)

"Christ is the one who's going to be lifted up," Pomeroy said in his first public statement at a Nov. 6 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."

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. 

River Oaks opened its facility as a shelter for family members and made plans to host the command post of an Oklahoma Baptists disaster relief. SBTC disaster relief chaplains 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 are affiliated with SBTC, as is Brookhill Baptist Church in San Antonio where chaplains are being housed.

Southern Baptist Convention President Steve 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, I sensed the need to go there and try to minister to the pastor and his wife and their devastated congregation,” Gaines said. “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.

"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,” Page said. “The church reflects the core of who we are. I call Southern Baptist churches to pray for these dear people."

Pomeroy's wife, Sherri, who also was out of town during the shooting, expressed appreciation for an "outpouring of love" from friends, community members and even strangers. Bombarded by news media with requests for interviews and appearances “to celebrate Annabelle’s life,” she explained their reason for turning down those appeals.

“As much tragedy as that entails for our family, we don’t want to overshadow the other lives lost yesterday. We lost more than Belle yesterday, and one thing that gives me a sliver of encouragement is the fact that Belle was surrounded yesterday by her church family, which she loved fiercely and vice versa.”

The pastor’s wife preferred to describe the church as a very close family. “Our church was not comprised with members or parishioners,” she said, standing next to her husband. “We ate together, we laughed together, we cried together and we worshipped together. Now, most of our church family is gone, our building is probably beyond repair and the few of us that are left behind lost tragically yesterday.”

Reading from her own Facebook post, she added, “As senseless as this tragedy was, our sweet Belle would not have been able to deal with losing so much family yesterday. “ Her closing appeal asked those listening, “Please don’t forget Sutherland Springs. “

The dead ranged from an unborn baby in its mother’s womb and an 18-month old to a 77-year old. Nine of the dead were the members of one family, including associate pastor Bryan Holcombe, who was filling the pulpit for Pomeroy. 

The rampage began at approximately 11:20 a.m. when the shooter (whose identity the TEXAN is not stating) fired a semiautomatic rifle at the outside of the church building before entering and methodically firing at worshipers as he paced through the room, according to The New York Times.

Local Wilson County Sherriff Joe Tackett said "nearly everyone" in the room "had some type of injury," according to CNN.

The shooter was fired upon by a man authorities described as “a good Samaritan” who headed over from his house next door after hearing of the incident. Ultimately, a medical examiner determined two of the shooter’s three wounds were from that confrontation, while the third was consistent with a self-inflicted wound. The body was recovered where the shooter crashed his SUV, having been pursued by the neighbor and another area man.

In a Nov. 5 interview with Fox News, SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards called the shooting “spiritual warfare” and a “demonic attack.”

Spiritual warfare often "takes the form of physical violence," he said. "It's heartbreaking and horrific." That and many other interviews he accepted the following day provided opportunities to share a message of hope through faith in Jesus Christ.

"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." 

Richards, his wife, June, and Pastor/Church Relations Director Tony Wolfe arrived Nov. 6 with plans to attend the Tuesday pastors’ gathering. Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines and SBC Executive Committee President Frank S. Page are set to arrive in Sutherland Springs Nov. 7 to offer prayer and encouragement. 

Offers of practical help have poured into SBTC offices and those of local churches. Southern Baptist Convention leaders offered to channel donations to cover funeral expenses for all shooting victims in coordination with the SBTC. A Texas Victim Relief organization also offered to meet those needs and numerous online fundraisers are active.

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 YouTube 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."

SBTC’s pastor/church relations director offered condolences on behalf of the other 2,643 affiliated congregations, stating, “The SBTC is a family of churches so when one grieves, we all grieve,” Wolfe said. “We will walk with you on this long journey ahead, leaning every single moment on the grace that is ours in Christ Jesus.” 

You may view the full sermon at: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=KYu-XUdms10.

—This article was written by David Roach and Tammi Reed Ledbetter