A typical small-town Southern Baptist church in Texas became the scene of the fifth-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history Nov. 5, when a gunman interrupted Sunday morning worship with gunshots from a military-style rifle, killing at least 26 people and wounding dozens more.
First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, is affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, one of two separate Baptist bodies in the state supporting work of the Southern Baptist Convention.
SBC leaders including current president Steve Gaines, former president Jack Graham, Executive Committee CEO Frank Page and LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom Rainer all issued condolences in the aftermath of the tragedy. Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, said chaplains are being mobilized to help members of the community deal with the trauma.
Baptist General Convention of Texas executive David Hardage sent “our deepest sympathy” to the congregation “on behalf of our entire Texas Baptists family.”
Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said that while details of what happened are still being sorted out, “what we know is that the safety and sanctity of a sacred place — a house of worship — has been violated and dozens of human lives have been senselessly taken.”
“I spend time in churches across the Fellowship every week, and I love church people,” Paynter said. “My heart breaks for the lives lost and the lives affected by this latest act of gun violence in our nation.”
Lee Spitzer, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, asked churches “to dedicate a special time of prayer for First Baptist Church and Sutherland Springs” when they gather during the week.
The Texas Department of Public Safety identified the shooter as Devin Patrick Kelley, 26. Kelley, who died shortly after fleeing the scene, was from New Braunfels, Texas. Police have not released any information about a possible motive, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told ABC’s “Good Morning America” the attack did not appear to be random.
CNN says Kelley had domestic problems with in-laws who attended the church, but they were not inside when the rampage occurred.
Victims slain in the attack ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years old. Pastor Frank Pomeroy, who typically would have been preaching, happened to be out of state, but his 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was among the fatalities.
The attack follows on the heels of eight deaths on Halloween day after a 29-year-old man drove a rented pickup truck onto a busy bicycle path in New York City and an Oct. 1 sniper attack that killed 58 people attending an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, Nev.
And while it isn’t the first such attack inside a house of worship, seeing it occur in a town of fewer than 700 people 35 miles southeast of San Antonio on US Highway 87 added to growing concerns among the public that nowhere is safe from mayhem caused by domestic or foreign terrorists.
A week ago Pastor Pomeroy parked his Harley Davidson motorcycle in front of the pulpit at First Baptist in Sutherland Springs as a sermon illustration and opened services with an invitation to the church’s annual fall festival and hayride later in the week.
Past Facebook postings include photos from a youth yard sale to defray costs to go to camp, an ugly sweater church Christmas party, vacation Bible school and Christmas Eve candlelight services, a venison pot roast prepared for Thursday night church supper and proud display of a new marquee sign paid for by donations in 2015.
The church’s website listing on the Southern Baptist Convention church-finder database introduces the congregation founded in 1926 as “a historic church standing on the inerrant, infallible Word of God, ever changing to be molded by God to be the salt and light of the world.”
The church website describes a mission “to honor and glorify God by studying his word, sharing his gospel, praying for his guidance, and doing His will not ours.” Ministries include veteran’s outreach, visiting a local nursing home, food distribution, community volunteer opportunities for youth and movie nights for children.
The church reported average Sunday school attendance of 65 and worship attendance of 100 to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, but media reports estimated the average Sunday morning crowd at closer to 50.
While the public image of the Southern Baptist Convention is often identified by its megachurches, a 2016 study by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary said America’s largest Protestant group is in reality a “large convention of mostly small churches.”
More than two thirds of SBC churches average 100 or less in worship, and 39 percent are congregations 50 or smaller, compared to 1.5 percent of SBC churches with more than 1,000 in worship.
The biggest segment of offerings to the Cooperative Program unified budget is from churches with attendances between 100 and 250. In nine of 10 churches averaging 250 or less in worship, the pastor also holds a secular job.