The Day the Pastor Was Away and Evil Came Barging Into His Church

On any other Sunday, Frank Pomeroy, the pastor at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Tex., would have been in the pulpit. He would have seen the gunman, his steely gaze familiar, barge in mid-sermon. He would have heard the gunfire break out.

But he was hundreds of miles away. And so Mr. Pomeroy, reflecting in his first extensive interview on the mass shooting that took place inside his church, can only imagine the awfulness of it. And ponder whether he could have made a difference had he been preaching that day.

Instead, Mr. Pomeroy was attending a class in Oklahoma City on the morning of Nov. 5. A three-word text message came across his cellphone. “Shooting at church,” it said.

He thought the sender, who was the church’s videographer, was kidding. “I hope you are joking,” he wrote back.

The reply came seconds later: “No.”

Mr. Pomeroy frantically tried to call parishioners who were at the service, but no one picked up. “By then, it was too late,” he recalled. “They had been shot.” He finally reached a friend, who was 10 minutes away from the church. The friend rushed to the scene and soon confirmed the unimaginable. Bodies were sprawled everywhere. Among the dead was the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle.

“I am trying to follow the Bible, which says you should not let the sun set on your anger because anger only makes it worse,” Mr. Pomeroy said. He is attempting to live by the advice he typically gives to parishioners in mourning. Good versus evil. God’s plan. The importance of faith.

Annabelle Pomeroy, the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter, was killed.CreditSeguin Independent School District, via Associated Press

“We are supposed to find that peaceful place and to pray about it and accept what it is,” he said.

But finding that spiritual refuge has hardly been easy.

The carnage that Devin P. Kelley wreaked in what became the worst mass shooting in Texas history left 25 people dead, including a pregnant woman whose fetus was declared fatality No. 26, and 20 others injured. The trauma affected thousands more, certainly everyone in the tiny rural community of Sutherland Springs.

Amid the collective grieving, Mr. Pomeroy, 51, has found himself in an unfamiliar situation for a pastor. While presiding over funerals and counseling bereaved families are cornerstones of his calling, he now requires consoling himself.

“What is different here is that the comforting is mutual,” he said through his cellphone this week from outside a hospital where he was visiting a wounded survivor of the shooting. “We are all leaning on each other because this is surreal and beyond the scope of anything we have had to deal with. We are a tightknit group anyway. If nothing else, this has made us closer.”

Mr. Pomeroy’s own pain and the suffering of his wife of three decades, Sherri, have not hindered him from carrying out his pastoral duties — as grim as they have been. When he is not attending funerals or making hospital visits, he has spent hours in meetings with insurance companies, lawyers and a committee put together to make decisions on the future of the church.

“In a word, life has been tumultuous, and it feels like the days are running together because they have been extremely busy,” Mr. Pomeroy said. “I feel that I am not grieving as adequately as I should. I feel pretty weak right now, a bit shaky.”

One week after the shooting, First Baptist Church was reopened to the public as a memorial.CreditDrew Anthony Smith for The New York Times

He added: “It is hard to be strong for everyone else when I have my own heartache. But each day I am able to function a little better.”

He said that news reports stating he had decided to demolish the church because it would be too painful to continue using it were inaccurate and that a decision on what to do with the small house of worship had not yet been made.

“Those reports hurt a lot of people who needed the church to grieve,” Mr. Pomeroy said. For the time being, he added, the sanctuary where the attack occurred will no longer be used for services and will remain a memorial to the victims.

Mr. Pomeroy had met Mr. Kelley, 26, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Over the past three years or so, Mr. Kelley came to the church once or twice a year and sat in the back, out of sight from the camera that recorded the services for wider online viewing, Mr. Pomeroy said.

“I tried to talk to him a few times, but he wouldn’t listen or engage,” he recounted. “He acted entitled and spoke often in a harsh and ugly way. He seemed like an angry person who had never been taught to treat people the right way.”

Mr. Kelley made it clear to him that he “despised” the church, the pastor said, and that he wanted him to know he was an atheist. “He would throw these snide remarks in there when I was talking to his wife,” the pastor said of Danielle Shields, Mr. Kelley’s second wife. He added that after Mr. Kelley married Ms. Shields, she, too, was rarely seen at the church. “Once Danielle got married to him, she was pretty much gone,” Mr. Pomeroy said.

A graveside service in Sutherland Springs last week for members of one family who died in the shooting.CreditEric Gay/Associated Press

By the time of the attack, the couple were estranged, and law enforcement authorities have said the shooting might have stemmed from a dispute between Mr. Kelley and his mother-in-law. She and several others from that side of the family were regulars at the church. As Mr. Pomeroy put it, “Pretty much every time the church door was open, the mother-in-law was there.”

But on the morning of the shooting, Mr. Kelley’s mother-in-law was at home with her grandson. Once she realized that she was late for church, the pastor said, she opted not to go. Among the dead, though, was Lula Woicinski White, the grandmother of the gunman’s estranged wife and one of Ms. Pomeroy’s closest friends.

“My opinion is that he was going to the church to find the mother-in-law and was planning to shoot everybody on that side of the family,” Mr. Pomeroy said. “I think he came there for them but intended to do something much bigger.”

The pastor saw Mr. Kelley at the church’s fall festival on Oct. 31, just days before the shooting. “He just seemed like he was glaring at everybody he walked by,” Mr. Pomeroy recalled.

The pastor said that even though Mr. Kelley had such an unsettling presence, he never imagined that he would have “the guts or courage” to kill and wound so many innocent people. “He was a mean and hateful person, but I would not have dreamed that he had this magnitude of darkness in him,” Mr. Pomeroy said.

Law enforcement officials and friends of Mr. Kelley’s mother-in-law have said that he had been sending her threatening text messages. Mr. Pomeroy said he was not aware of the texts, but knew that she and others on that side of the family clashed with Mr. Kelley.

A memorial to the shooting victims in First Baptist Church. CreditDrew Anthony Smith for The New York Times

On the morning of the shooting, Mr. Pomeroy was taking a gun class so that he could get licensed to give instruction at a youth camp next summer on handling old-fashioned single-shot rifles and pistols.

The pastor, who said he carries a concealed firearm when he preaches, does not believe that anyone in the church was armed that morning. Outside the church, Mr. Kelley was injured by a bystander who shot him twice after the attack.

“In a way, I think that if I were there I could have done more,” he said. “But who is to say?”

After learning that his daughter had been killed in the rampage, he struggled to tell his wife. Ms. Pomeroy was in Florida at the time doing contract work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I didn’t want her to be alone when she heard that,” Mr. Pomeroy said. “I ended up having to tell her over the phone.”

He said she was “coping but having a hard time” dealing with a shooting in which she lost her two closest friends.

The couple have five other children, as well as one they have helped raise.

The outpouring of support the couple have received from around the world has left them feeling uplifted.

“It is encouraging that although there was one bad guy who tried to steal the day,” Mr. Pomeroy said, “thousands of good people have stood up in support.”

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