Tuesday night was supposed to be a high point of Annabelle Pomeroy’s year.
Months ago, the 14-year-old was cast in her first play, Seguin Independent School District’s production of Elf The Musical. She was beyond excited to have not only a speaking role, but a dancing part, too, her parents said.
Her moment in the spotlight would never come. She was killed, along with 24 other people and an unborn child, when a gunman opened fire at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 5.
Her parents, First Baptist Church Pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, were unexpectedly reminded of the play in a Facebook post. Moments like those shake them out of their new normal and send them into a tailspin, Frank Pomeroy told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“She loved deeply. She loved everybody,” he said of their adopted daughter. “She had no maliciousness.”
That’s their life now, a winding road of highs and lows. In the month since the shooting, the couple has attended 12 funerals and spent countless hours in hospitals and the homes of victims’ families. And, they’ve seen acts of goodwill as the community has come together, and lapsed members returned to the church.
As Pomeroy describes it, life is like a hula hoop with a thorn stuck in it. “Every now and then the thorn sticks you and you’ll cry, but you’ve got to keep hula-hooping and eventually the thorn will wear down some,” he said.
One thing is certain, he said. His faith is stronger than ever after the shooting.
“If I give up on the mission now, that means those 26 died in vain,” he said. “The whole 15 years I’ve been a pastor, [God’s] been preparing me. This is my Super Bowl, if you will. God said, ‘OK, let’s see where you’re at.'”
Pastor Frank was hundreds of miles away at a class in Oklahoma City the morning of the shooting. He learned the news in a text message from the church’s videographer that said something to the effect of “active shooter.”
“Surely, you’re joking,” he recalled texting in response.
When the answer was no, Pomeroy jumped in his car and made the eight-hour drive back home.
He arrived at Sutherland Springs before his wife, who was also out of the state. She was at the airport in Florida when she got the phone call from her husband letting her know their daughter was among the dead.
Then she began her own eight-hour journey home. “I was in a fog,” she said.
They returned to a church riddled in bullets holes and stained with blood.
Sometimes, Sherri Pomeroy wishes she had been at the church that day. Then, her daughter would not have been alone and she wouldn’t have to live with the pain. She wonders if Annabelle cried or if she called for her mama. Did she put her fingers in mouth, like she usually did when she was scared?
But Sherri Pomeroy has other children and grandchildren, as well as her extended church family, survivors of the shooting among them. Some are paralyzed. John Holcombe, the man who called Pastor Frank, lost his pregnant wife, his parents, three children, a brother and a niece.
If the surviving Holcombes and the others can make it, she can too.
“Yes, it hurts to lose a child. But they’ve lost also and they’re still standing. How can I not stand with them?” she said. “We have our moments and we cry. But if you dwell on that instead of dwelling on the positive, that’s what tears you apart.”
Pastor Frank has moments of doubt, too, when he wonders if he could have changed the outcome. He carries a gun, and, before the shooting happened, he and other members had come up with a plan for an active shooter at the church.
He recalls Psalm 23 as he tries not to dwell on the what-ifs. As he understands it, nothing in the verse suggests that pausing or stopping to rest is an option in the valley of the shadow of death.
“If you sit and you park in those kind of thoughts — of the ifs and the what-ifs — I think that we’re staying in the valley of the shadow of death,” he said. “You’ve got to just get through there and keep on moving.”
The Pomeroys try not to ask why of God. But they do wonder about the shooter. If he was angry with relatives, as investigators have suggested, Pastor Frank wonders, why such carnage and brutality?
The Pomeroys knew the shooter, but Pastor Frank didn’t care for him, and he didn’t seem to care about the church. They crossed paths when the shooter and his wife visited her mother at church, maybe four times at the most. Pastor Frank perceived him as angry and narcissistic, someone he could imagine hurting his wife or children. But he never imagined him capable of such violence.
A shy girl who loved people
It didn’t surprise the Pomeroys that Annabelle had chosen to attend church when they were gone. She loved going to church because she loved to be around people, Sherri Pomeroy said. Annabelle helped her mother and others prepare church meals on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings.
The couple adopted Annabelle and her older sister when Annabelle was two years old. The couple already had five children and had not planned on adopting. But when they met the girls in the church sanctuary, they could not leave without them, Frank Pomeroy said.
Annabelle was a “motherly” figure toward her nieces and nephews. When the family got together, she’d take them outside to play with the dogs. Annabelle’s birthday at the end of October was one of the last times they were all together, her mother said. Each year, her birthday marked the start of a season of celebrations that continued with Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, she had two birthday parties so her mother could be present before she left on her work trip.
“She just wanted to be with people. She was very interactive. She’d be quiet a lot but she liked people,” her father said.
Their last time together was the Friday before the shooting. He tears up as he remembers it. He had awoken early and cooked her a hearty breakfast. They ate in the living room, watching hunting shows before she went to school. He kissed her goodbye and said he’d see her on Monday for dinner.
That last moment together was great, he said. But remembering it hurts because of what it signifies.
“I won’t ever take her to dinner,” he said through tears. “But you just can’t dwell there.”