Last week, members of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas dressed in shark, pirate and cow costumes, celebrating an alternative to evil on Halloween.
On Sunday, evil walked through the sanctuary doors.
Authorities say at least 26 people were killed when a gunman opened fire during the 11 a.m. service. At least 20 others were injured in the shooting about 30 miles east of San Antonio.
The scene of the nation’s latest mass shooting is a small church that feeds the community weekly. First Baptist’s youth group visits local nursing homes and helps neighbors clean their property after storms, according to the church.
In one of several sermons posted online, Frank Pomeroy — the church’s motorcycle-riding pastor — used an image of a Harley-Davidson parked near the altar to illustrate his message for the service, entitled “You Don’t Need Training Wheels, You Need Christ!”
“They don’t have a lot of money, but they are always willing to give,” said Mike Clements, who pastors a church in nearby Floresville also named First Baptist Church. “These people are merciful people. A lot of them will be forgiving with what happened.”
Thursday dinners at First Baptist
Authorities have not yet released the identities of the victims who died in the shooting. Pomeroy’s 14-year-old daughter was among the dead, said his wife, the girl’s mother. The couple was traveling out of state when the shooting occurred.
“I think a lot of children died today. And they just wanted to go to church,” Clements said.
Sutherland Springs native Tambria Read, 59, a high school teacher who grew up in First Baptist, said two of her students in the seventh and 10th grades were in surgery late Sunday. Parents of other students were among the dead, she said.
Read no longer attends the church, but remains close to the congregation. She said First Baptist opens its doors to the public on Thursday for dinner and worship. Members “hope you stay, but you don’t have to,” she said.
Last Tuesday, Read dropped off candy for the church’s fall festival, scheduled for Halloween, where children usually sing and pray and scamper around in egg-in-a-spoon races “instead of scaring each other,” she said.
“It’s an alternative to Halloween ghosts and goblins,” she said.
First Baptist is the oldest church that has continuously operated in the rural community of Sutherland Springs, said Read, chairwoman of the Sutherland Springs Historical Museum.
The community draws its name from Dr. John Sutherland, a doctor who tended to the sick during the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. Four years later, he moved his family to what would become Sutherland Springs, according to the Sutherland Springs History Museum’s web site.
Sutherland became the community’s postmaster, the website said.
These days, weekenders drive along Route 87, the main drag in Sutherland Springs, pulling cruising boats on trailers on the way to the coast.
Dana Fletcher, who owns a business down the road from the church, told CNN that Sutherland Springs is a “very small” but “very tight-knit community.”
“There’s two gas stations, the church, a community center, post office, a Dollar General, a tire shop,” she said. “That’s about it.”
‘My God, my God’
During last week’s service, Pomeroy showed a video of a motorcyclist leaning into a turn, before citing a scripture from Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
“Lean on the Lord. Though it may not make sense in our finite mind, just as leaning into a turn may not make sense,” Pomeroy told the congregation. “Leaning into God is the way we should go, because God’s got it figured out whether we do or not.”
After the shooting, people flooded the church’s Facebook page with messages of condolence.
“My God, my God … How my heart goes out for this dear congregation,” one person wrote.
A woman in Charleston, South Carolina, where a self-described white supremacist killed nine members of a historically black church during Bible study in June 2015, sent prayers to the congregation and the affected families.
“I pray that your community comes together as we did and are still doing here,” she wrote.