SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — First Baptist Church Pastor Frank Pomeroy said he turned the radio to his daughter's favorite Christmas station on Wednesday morning because he knew she would be disappointed if the tragic mass shooting here also killed her family's holiday spirit.
“It is hard to cope right now,” he told NBC News in an exclusive broadcast interview Wednesday, his voice starting to strain as he wiped a tear from his eye. "But I know Annabelle would have still wanted that Christmas music on. She would want the holidays to proceed — it was her favorite time of the year."
Fourteen-year-old Annabelle was one of the 26 people who died at Pomeroy’s church earlier this month in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. The pastor only just finished conducting and attending funerals for each of the victims this week.
Despite the personal tragedy that he shares with members of his church, Pomeroy said he has a lot to be thankful for this year — and he refuses to give in to the evil act that nearly crippled this small South Texas community.
“Is it going to be difficult? Yes, but you know what? I am celebrating this great country that God has blessed us with on Thanksgiving, and also celebrating the birth of the savior at Christmas," he said.
And Pomeroy doesn't have to do it alone: He said people from across the world have reached out to him and his family, and there’s even help from another congregation just a couple miles up the road.
Paul Buford, pastor of nearby River Oaks Church, has been at Pomeroy’s side regularly since the shooting, pitching in wherever he can as well as making counselors available for those struggling to handle the hardship of the holidays.
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“Just last night we had a special session here that we did on grief in the holidays, because we realize that is coming up and know that is going to be a difficult time — when you look across the table and there is an empty chair,” Buford said.
The dead who once sat next to their loved ones here at Thanksgiving are now memorialized in the First Baptist Church, the site of the mass shooting. Audio recordings of Bible readings play and 26 empty folding chairs fill the church, which is now painted a bright white.
Pomeroy said he knew the shooter, Devin Kelley, and had spoken to him multiple times and seen him at the church’s fall festival less than a week prior to the shooting.
"To be quite honest, I wouldn't have thought he would have the courage to try to do something like that,” Pomeroy said. "He was not someone I put much faith or respect into even as a human being — much less as a man. He was just a very spiteful person."
Sutherland Springs will never forget the tragedy, he said, and the people who live in this small town have never been closer.
“I would hope no pastor has to go through the process of 26 funerals in a week,” Pomeroy said, who will have a temporary building to preach out of next week. “It makes it very difficult, however, it also brings the community together and draws them together, both as a community and a church.”
And Pomeroy said he knows of nearly 30 people who have reached out to him and said they have reconnected with their religious upbringing because of the tragedy here. Knowing that encourages this pastor to move forward.
“Prior to this, I was fighting the battle to the best of my ability,” Pomeroy said of his work as a pastor. “But even more so now, that I know there's 26 more martyrs that have laid down their life for that battle and the Lord left me here, I feel, means that he wanted me to continue that fight for him in their names as well.”
Miguel Almaguer reported from Sutherland Springs, Texas. Phil McCausland reported from New York City.