Faith under fire: How 3 congregations moved on from mass shootings

People touched by three mass shootings talk about what they went through.

December 30, 2019, 3:24 PM

This story was originally published in June 2019.

Sherri Pomeroy was traveling for work when she heard there had been a shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where her husband Frank is a pastor. Hearing the news, she immediately rushed to the airport.

Frank Pomeroy was not at the church either, but he heard a report over the radio that "the pastor's daughter is included with the deceased."

He immediately called his wife, desperate that she get the news from him. She was already at the airport when her phone rang.

"I was at the security table about to walk through security, when he finally told me -- that Annabelle was gone," Sherri Pomeroy told ABC News. "And I remember it was a metal table and I just fell to my knees and hung on to that metal table."

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in Pittsburgh, Oct. 29, 2018.
Matt Rourke/AP, FILE

Annabelle Pomeroy, only 14, was among the 26 people killed in the worst mass shooting at a house of worship in U.S. history. Another 20 people were injured that morning in November 2017, when a gunman stormed the rural Texas church during a Sunday service.

"The aftermath hurt almost as much as the actual, what the shooter did in our church," Frank Pomeroy said.

"I'm just recently beginning to say I'm OK," his wife added.

The Pomeroys, as well as those touched by two other mass shootings at American houses of worship, sat down with ABC News while they were in the nation's capital.

They came to Washington, D.C., to speak at the National Cathedral with religious leaders in the city about how to prepare their own congregations for a targeted attack and how to rebuild afterward. The event was organized by the city's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.

Allan Hausman, the vice president of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed in October 2018, told ABC News that "people are scared right now," and every new shooting reopens old wounds.

"It essentially just opens the wounds again. It's really really hard to see your folks almost reliving the entire event -- right when they were getting to a point where they were beginning to learn how to deal with it," he said.

Law enforcement officials works at the scene of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Nov. 5, 2017.
Nick Wagner/ via AP

At a briefing, an FBI counter-intelligence official said the bureau is seeing an increase in "people who advocate for the supremacy of the white race." Since that Pittsburgh shooting, where the gunman allegedly shouted anti-Semitic threats as he killed worshipers, the bureau has seen a 30 percent increase involving these types of cases.

Hausman said that although they are not back in their synagogue -- and don't expect to return for at least a few years -- they now have armed security at their events.

"We have uniformed police officers there. We have cameras in this building. If people come in and we don't recognize them, their bags are searched," Hausman said.

The threat of a gunman is all too familiar for Rev. Eric Manning, the pastor of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Four years ago, in June 2015, a shooting there left nine dead at his church.

"We have security protocol that details what to do when we receive emails that are threatening," Manning told ABC News.

Frank Pomeroy said he sometimes hears from conspiracy theorists who question if the attack on his church ever happened -- claiming the shooting was staged in an effort to impose new gun control measures.

"I have been told by some that Annabel never existed, and by some I've human trafficked her away," he said.

People stand outside as parishioners leave the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C.
Stephen B. Morton/AP

Still, he and his wife have looked to their congregation to find strength.

"We have survivors that lost nine family members," Sherri Pomeroy said. "If they can get up and worship, so can I. If they can get up and take a step, so can I. So they're my heroes and we speak out for them and to let the world know there is hope."

"If we stop spreading hope, then we let evil win," she said.

"If you choose hope and mercy and grace over pessimism and hate and divisiveness, you're going to heal and you're going to be able to move forward," Frank Pomeroy added.

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