How First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs Continued Its Christmas Traditions as Victims and Their Families Still Recover From Tragic In-Service Massacre

Kris Workman holds his daughter, Eevee Workman, 3, at the First Baptist Church Christmas Potluck in Sutherland Springs on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. Sunday was Workman’s first visit back to the church since he was shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down on Nov. 5. At left is Stormy Choate with Yazmeen Briggs, 5. Photo: SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS

A miniature pair of bright pink boots. A framed black-and-white sonogram. An image of Jennifer in white, and Danny in a tux, preserved in a clear orb.

The fragmented moments encapsulated in these ornaments hang on Jennifer Holcombe’s Christmas tree — mementos of a life she will never get back.

A life with Noah Grace, her 18-month-old daughter, and Danny Holcombe, her laughing husband. Of large Holcombe family gatherings during Christmastime. Of a First Baptist Church filled with people she’d known for years.

In a new world with those closest to her now gone, Jennifer, 38, pushes herself to find meaning, to discover her purpose, to try to make something good of her loss. But the holidays leave her searching for a new tradition to lessen the pain.

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For the tight-knit community of Sutherland Springs, the holiday season this year is like none other. On Nov. 5, Devin Kelley stepped into the church and killed 26 people, including an unborn child, with a military-style rifle before he was shot and then died in a car chase. It was the largest massacre in Texas history.

Almost everyone had a relative or friend who was killed or wounded. The Christmas-themed church services last Sunday reminded families of their love for one another, but also of the love they can no longer share with those who were killed.

The psychological wounds in the small town south of San Antonio remain raw, and families are met each day with reminders large and small of their loved ones.

Stockings of Jennifer’s deceased husband and child hang above the fireplace, and baby toys are scattered across the floor in her home. A cup on the sink still has a small toothbrush, and children’s bath toys are stuck to the bathtub walls.

“This is my home. All my memories are here. I couldn’t just pack up and leave,” she said, casting her eyes around her living room.

“That’s what I have now, the memories. I need them.”

John Holcombe, her brother-in-law, has ornaments filled with memories, too.

John, who was wounded in the shooting, lost nine family members: two daughters, his son, his wife, a baby — yet to be born — his mother, his father, his brother — Danny, Jennifer’s husband — and his niece, Noah Grace.

In a box full of Christmas ornaments he’s trying to preserve, there’s the pink My Little Pony that was 8-year-old Megan’s favorite. There’s 11-year-old Emily’s unfinished ornament, a gift to her mother, with beads only glued to a quarter of it. And there’s the seven gingerbread men, a gift to the family in 2013, each with the names of John’s family members.

Now only three are left.

“It’s a lot more quiet then it used to be,” he said.

Sometimes the victim’s friends and family sob with uncontrollable grief. Other times, they quietly go through the motions of their day — a silent suffering. Confronting the tragic loss is almost unbearable. The Holcombes and other families lost their spouses, their best friends, the children in whom they placed so much hope for the future. Destroyed in an instant by a madman who showed no mercy for the innocent victims. How does one fill such a void?

“There’s this knot in my chest,” said John Holcombe, his voice wavering as he described the feeling of losing so many loved ones. “There’s a spaceyness.”

Jennifer Holcombe described her loss succinctly: “Everything I did, I’m not doing anymore. Everyone I had, now I don’t.”

Sometimes the empty space inside threatens to swallow them. When they feel this way, the surviving congregants of the First Baptist Church turn their gaze upward and think of God. Religion has helped shape their lives, and God is one thing that can’t be physically taken away from them.

Little Noah Grace wore bright pink boots almost every day, including the day she died.

“We decided (the boots) belonged to her. I couldn’t pass them on to somebody else,” Jennifer said.

They went to the grave with her. Now two tiny pairs of bright pink boots hang on Jennifer’s tree, inscribed with the words “Like mom, like daughter.”

Noah Grace and her father Danny Holcombe died beside Jennifer as they hid underneath a pew. Jennifer inexplicably survived, unwounded.

“I was just praying for (God) to protect Noah and keep her safe. Danny and I were just trying to keep Noah safe,” she said, clasping her hands together.

When the shooting was over — when the screams had stopped, when the smoke was clearing, when the ambulances had arrived and the gunman was gone — Jennifer Holcombe climbed up from the floor and exited the church.

She can’t remember doing this. She can’t remember much of what she did that day. But she does remember knowing this: her family was dead.

“I think that’s the only reason I was able to get up and walk out of there, because I didn’t have to get up and wonder about them. I knew they were gone.”

The gift of a child

Jennifer has a willowy frame and long thick hair that she frequently lifts into a ponytail. Her face is clear of makeup, and the smile below her rectangular glasses comes easily, even now.

As she sat near her Christmas tree one recent morning, she watched her niece, 2-year-old Elene, with the eyes of a mother: alternately smiling and monitoring for signs of danger. When Elene got fussy, Jennifer pulled out Noah Grace’s books and toys for her.

“What about this?” she said at one point, holding up one of Noah Grace’s picture books. Elene eagerly stretched her hands out. Jennifer smiled.

Jennifer and Danny Holcombe had gone through multiple fertility treatments to conceive Noah Grace. They wanted a child of their own so badly.

“We knew having her was a blessing in that,” Jennifer said. “So we figured we could use that (experience) to help somebody else get through that. I guess God was almost preparing us for now, because I knew what it was like not to have what I wanted. And now… I don’t have it again.”

She drew deep, shuddering breaths and began to sob. Sarah Slavin, her sister-in-law, reached out her hand and squeezed Jennifer’s tightly. For a minute, they suffered their grief together.

Noah Grace got her name from a story in the Bible. She was one of five daughters in a family with no sons and, as the story goes, when their father dies, Noah and her sisters petition Moses for the right to inherit his land, in the absence of a male heir. God grants them their wish.

“Noah means standing up for what you believe in, taking a stand, and that was something we wanted to teach her. And ‘Grace’ because she was a gift,” Jennifer said. “Danny would tell anyone that story.”

Jennifer and her in-laws thought of having a small get-together at the home of Danny’s parents, Bryan and Karla Holcombe, who were also killed, but they’re still not quite sure if that’s going to happen. Plans are painful to think about. It’s hard enough getting through the day, much less the holidays.

“Anything we can do to put it off until after the New Year, after the holidays — we don’t want to make it any harder,” said Slavin, 33, daughter of Bryan and Karla. She said the holidays “will be different and challenging.”

Already, Jennifer has had to put up Christmas decorations without her husband and daughter. Across town, Frank and Sherri Pomeroy couldn’t bear to decorate their tree. Their daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, 14, was killed inside their church, where Frank is the pastor. Frank and Sherri’s children came from out of town to decorate the tree.

The Pomeroys used to always watch Annabelle’s Wish together. The 1997 movie is about a mute boy and his friendship with a calf who wants to be a reindeer.

“She just loved that her name was in a movie,” said Sherri Pomeroy. “It was about a special Christmas wish and the hope of Christmas. It was about giving.”

Rita Brown, Frank Pomeroy’s mother and Annabelle’s grandmother, said she’s not quite sure how they’ll all pull through the holidays.

“I’ve been to the house one time since Annabelle’s death, and just being there that one time was just…,” Brown searched for the words, her mouth clamped shut as if willing her urge to cry to go away. “It’s just going to be very hard.”

Bryan and Karla Holcombe used to always quote Matthew 6:34 from the Bible: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own.”

Their children have lived and breathed that phrase ever since Nov. 5.

“We don’t have to waste time thinking about tomorrow because the day is filled with something to do,” said their son Scott Holcombe, 30. “They always quoted (Matthew 6:34) and I see why, now.”

‘Missing faces’

Last Sunday, residents of Sutherland Springs bundled up in scarves and hats and passed by a wreath with a ribbon reading “LOVE NEVER FAILS” in cursive on their way into the First Baptist Church’s new sanctuary.

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SOURCE: San-Antonio Express News – Silvia Foster-Frau