SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TEXAS (BP) — Six-year-old Ryland Ward, the last victim hospitalized from the Sutherland Springs massacre, returned home in style Jan. 11. He rode in a crimson Wilson County fire truck driven by volunteer firefighter Rusty Duncan, who had rescued the boy from the Nov. 5 carnage.
Ryland returns home to a world markedly different than the one he left — a new normal without his stepmother, Joann Ward, who died shielding her children from the shooter. Ryland’s sisters Emily and Brooke were also slain.
Today, healing continues at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church months after the shooting which claimed the lives of 26, including Pastor Frank Pomeroy’s daughter. The empty sanctuary — painted stark white with slatted chairs bearing red roses and victims’ names — remains a solemn and much-visited memorial as decisions regarding rebuilding proceed.
“There’s a lot of pain, a lot of hurt,” said Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) pastor/church relations associate Ted Elmore, who represents the SBTC in meetings with the church and community stakeholders.
As of mid-January, the church had not finalized plans to rebuild, Elmore told the Southern Baptist TEXAN, noting that the congregation has received offers of reconstruction assistance from local builders, charitable entities and the North American Mission Board.
Elmore praised the local community for meeting many of the needs of Sutherland Springs, specifically lauding the HEB grocery company whose initial gift to the victims of $150,000, an amount reported by San Antonio news outlets, has been supplemented by donations from customers online and in stores.
“The people of Sutherland Springs are very grateful to the state and the nation for their generosity,” Elmore said. “The outpouring of love and care has been a beauty to behold in the saddest of situations.”
Elmore also praised the Floresville, Stockdale and La Vernia school districts and nearby River Oaks church, which served as a staging area immediately after the tragedy and continues to host counseling services staffed by members of a San Antonio ministerial alliance and others.
The SBTC continues to support recovery efforts, supplying chaplains in the days following the tragedy and now making counselors available as needed. Elmore also helps organize volunteers to man the memorial — the former sanctuary — open Thursday through Sunday each week.
Visits to the memorial have resulted in salvations. “People feel somehow drawn there and many are overwhelmed. They talk to a chaplain or lay person, hear the Gospel, and give their lives to Christ,” Elmore explained.
The church has continued to hold services on the grounds since the shooting, first in a large tent and now in a modular building, where SBTC executive director Jim Richards preached on Jan. 7.
Sunday congregations of 250, often standing room only, are now common at Sutherland Springs.
The SBTC has assisted with operating funds to keep the church going, a commitment begun immediately after the tragedy.
“This was our policy since day one,” Elmore said, adding that, to further assist the church, the SBTC is sending Mike Landry to Sutherland Springs at the end of January to serve as a temporary associate pastor.
“Mike and his wife Connie are trained grief counselors and will be a tremendous asset to pastor Pomeroy and the church,” Elmore said, noting that he was currently working with church members on the restoration committee to “craft a job description” for Landry, who is expected to serve six to eight weeks.
SBTC Foundation president Bart McDonald confirmed that the Foundation has offered to help Sutherland Springs with financial matters and accounting services.
“We have offered to manage funds for them but they have not yet made a decision on moving those funds to the Foundation for our oversight,” McDonald told the TEXAN. “In addition to that, church leadership has expressed some interest in the Foundation providing accounting services, but again they have been focused on bigger issues.”
Regardless, the “church will be in total control of those gifts and how they are spent,” Elmore said.
Resources abound through state and local entities regarding legal matters and victims’ rights.
“State and county agencies have responded,” Elmore said, maintaining that the SBTC is meeting needs without being invasive.
“We have not gone down there and forced ourselves on them. We are responding to requests. They know they can ask us anything and we have yet to say no. We are there for love and support. They feel free to ask us. It’s a partnership,” Elmore said.