Sutherland Springs church pastor says he’s struggling to deal with his grief

Pastor Frank Pomeroy hugs a woman during a visit with family and victims of the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

Nearly three weeks after a gunman stormed into the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in Texas and massacred 26 people in the worst mass shooting in the state’s history, the church’s pastor says he is struggling to deal with his grief and that his sadness is compounded by guilt over what he might have done to stop the shooting.

Speaking to the New York Times in his first interview since the attack, Pastor Frank Pomeroy said he regularly carried a concealed weapon when he preached on Sunday mornings. But on Nov. 5, he was absent from the pulpit, attending a gun training class hundreds of miles away in Oklahoma City when he got a text message from the church’s videographer that read: “Shooting at church.”

Pomeroy tells the Times he thought the text message was a joke at first, but the camera operator, who was shot, told him it wasn’t. The pastor began frantically calling others in the church, trying to find out what had happened. But the phones just rang and rang. More than half of those inside the small community church were dead, including Pomeroy’s 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, while another 20 were wounded.

The weeks since have been a blur of funerals, hospital visits to the wounded and meetings with insurance companies, lawyers and others about the future of the church. Pomeroy tells the Times that, as a pastor, he has tried his best to offer comfort to his grieving congregation and that they, in turn, have tried to console him, but that he is struggling.

“I feel that I am not grieving as adequately as I should. I feel pretty weak right now, a bit shaky,” Pomeroy said. “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.”

A woman prays next to a fence outside the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church last weekend. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

But Pomeroy said he struggles with guilt wondering if he might have been able to stop the gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, had he been there that morning. None of the other church members had been armed that morning.

“In a way, I think that if I were there I could have done more,” the pastor told the Times. “But who is to say?”

Weeks later, police still have yet to offer a specific motive in the case. They have said Kelley was engaged in a “domestic dispute” with his mother-in-law, Michelle Shields, who regularly attended the church but was not there that morning. According to police, Shields, whose 22-year-old daughter Danielle had been married to Kelley since 2014, received “threatening text messages” from the gunman ahead of the attack — though it remains unclear exactly when those texts were sent.

According to Pomeroy, Shields missed church that morning because she was at home with her grandson. But her mother, Lula Woicinski White, was killed.

The Shields family has offered no public comment on the attack — silence that has been largely matched by the gunman’s own immediate family, including his parents. Kelley and his wife lived in a converted barn behind his parents’ home on a sprawling wooded property in New Braunfels, about an hour north of Sutherland Springs, though the couple was reportedly estranged.

Balloons are released at a graveside service last week for members of the Holcombe family who were killed in the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church shooting. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

Pomeroy tells the Times he knew Kelley and that he had attended services at the church “once or twice a year” with his wife. He would sit in the back and often made “snide remarks” about the church, making clear to the pastor that he was a nonbeliever.

“I tried to talk to him a few times but he wouldn’t listen or engage,” Pomeroy told the Times. “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.”

Just days before the shooting, on Halloween, the gunman had attended the church’s annual fall festival, where the pastor recalled it “seemed like he was glaring at everybody he walked by.” But Pomeroy said even as cold as Kelley was to him and others in the church, he never anticipated him having “the guts or courage” to attack the church as he did.

“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,” Pomeroy said. “I think he came there for them but intended to do something much bigger.”

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