Tuesday November 14, 2017

'I just lost it,' says woman who attended Texas church service 1 week after mass shooting

People pray in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, which was the site of a mass shooting last week, as the church was opened to the public as a memorial to those killed.

People pray in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, which was the site of a mass shooting last week, as the church was opened to the public as a memorial to those killed. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

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For the first time since its worshipers were massacred, the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs Texas briefly re-opened its doors.

On Sunday, some residents were allowed into the small sanctuary, which has been stripped of its pews and painted a stark white with 26 empty chairs — including one for the unborn baby of a victim who was pregnant — bearing each victim's name.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with local teacher Tambria Read who attended the church as a child and knew many of the people who died. Here is part of their conversation.

What was it like for you to step into the First Baptist Church on Sunday?

It was heartbreaking. This was a church that I grew up in. It usually has nice wooden brown pews and some religious artwork on the walls and the whole sanctuary is stark white. 

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A chilling memorial set up inside the church included 26 white chairs — including one for the unborn baby of a victim who was pregnant — bearing each victim's name or nickname painted in gold. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

I understand there were dozens of people who worked round the clock to take everything out — all this damaged structure, all the pews, the equipment, everything — and then to create a completely different environment. That's what you saw?

Yes. I feel it was very tastefully done. Some of my students who are youth members there were concerned because it didn't look like their church anymore, but it is a memorial. The walls have been spray-painted white, as many holes as possible have been patched, and the outside and the inside have been spray-painted white. The chairs are white. The victims' names are painted in gold calligraphy on the back of the chair.

 

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A candlelight vigil is observed on Nov. 5, 2017, following the mass shooting. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images)

Did you imagine or try not to imagine what happened there?

I tried not to visualize. I'm a visual fine arts teacher and I really worked at not visualizing my friends. I thought about things that were there as a child — the pews and the hymnals, the bibles.

When I was talking with other people in the sanctuary, I didn't come to tears because I'm kind of a stoic person. Then when I got a way from the other few people that were in there, because they only allowed about 10 people at a time, and there were grief counselors in there and one caught my eye and I just lost it.

I can't think of anything else significant other than I'm assuming it won't be there much longer

They're not going to keep the church at all?

I do not think so. 

You mention Pastor Frank, this is Frank Pomeroy, who wasn't there that day, but his daughter Annabelle, 14 years old, was there, and she was killed. Pastor Frank Pomeroy spoke at the service on Sunday. How's he doing?

T First Corinthians 13 is his favourite verse and it talks about love never fails. He said that, "Evil came into our church and the Devil tried to take us over but we are resilient and we know that through love that we can conquer the Devil and we will survive and grow and move on."

My recollection of Annabelle was she was a young lady that never knew a stranger. Every time she saw me, and it wasn't very often, she'd just come up and hug my leg when she was little, "I've been missing you." As she got older she would hug my waist and apparently she did this with many, many people. 

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People pray in front of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There were eight members, I understand, of the Holcombe family that died in the shooting, including the unborn child who was part of that family. Did you know the Holcombes?

Oh yes. I've taught Bryan and Karla's, all of their children. Their funeral is tomorrow. John, Crystal's husband, is also a former student of mine. This is all very sad.

Luckily I was able to see John after church service on Sunday and I asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

He asked if I could help find the bagpipers because his dad had mentioned that he really enjoyed the bagpipers. 

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The chairs were placed throughout the room at the location where the victims died. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

How does a town come back from that? It's so small. This is half the congregation lost.

Just the strength of relying on each other and faith in God that goodness will prevail. This was caused by one person's inability to deal with his own demons, his own stresses in life. Coming together and helping each other we will grow and become stronger.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Tambria Read.