Sutherland Springs continues its Christmas traditions as families and victims recover from massacre

December 24, 2017

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.

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.

Inside, lit-up trees and wreaths decorate the new temporary building for their annual Christmas-themed Sunday services. John Holcombe arrived by himself and sat near the back.

He stared glassy-eyed out the window, looking at a small fig tree, which was rescued from destruction when workers were setting up the new building.

“I was wishing they were here,” he said in an unsteady tone hours later. His wife Crystal and their daughters had picked figs from that tree.

When he talked of them, tears filled his eyes and he had to clamp his mouth shut, and take a deep breath, to stifle the grief that threatens to take over.

“They were such a blessing,” he said.

Kris Workman, 34, who was shot in the massacre and is paralyzed below the waist, wheeled himself up the wooden ramp to the temporary building to attend the services. It was the first time he visited these grounds since Nov. 5.

Congregants pushed their chairs to the side to make room for him. His wife, Colbey Workman, 24, was dressed as the human embodiment of Christmas, with a thick ugly sweater, red stockings, and socks striped like a candy cane. She guided him, asking him if he needed anything, tending to him as a wife and, newly, as his caretaker.

Later, she won first place at the church’s annual ugly sweater contest — her fourth straight win. They played a game of white elephant, which was slightly more disorganized than usual because Karla Holcombe always used to lead it.

Colbey and Kris won a new furry piggy bank for Eevee, their 3-year-old daughter. “Deck the halls with bows of holly, oink oink oink, oink oink oink” Colbey joked, poking the pig into her daughter’s chin. Eevee, all dimples and blonde curls and large blue eyes, giggled and shrieked in delight.

But the day began on a more somber note. Kris Workman, wearing a black and white “Sutherland Springs Strong” T-shirt and a thoughtful expression, quietly observed the services before him: The new building, decked out in Christmas decor, is beautiful, he said, but the services are not the ones he knows.

“This feels very foreign, to see this many people in a building that’s brand new and unfamiliar,” he said. “It’s a sea of new faces — and a lot of missing faces.”

He used to sing on stage at the church, and he wondered when he’ll get back to doing that. He gets shooting pains in his legs that can be debilitating, and he still needs help doing basic functions like going to the bathroom. But beyond all that, what worries him the most about leading worship isn’t the physical obstacles.

“It’s a heart issue,” he said.

Workman sees the world differently now. It’s not safe and set — it’s an unsteady, unfair, unpredictable place. No one is immune from its hardships, he realized. You just have to hope, or pray, that something like this doesn’t happen to you.

“Life is fragile. We’re in a world that’s full of dangers,” he said. “We’ve been sent into a world that’s a crazy place. Anything can and will happen. So cling to God.”

So Workman will rely on his faith, and the sheer fact that life goes on. And he’ll rely on the unpredictable, unimaginably beautiful moments that can happen, too.

‘Bring them peace’

At 6 p.m., the Pomeroys, the Holcombes, the Greens and their friends and families climbed on flatbed trailers lined with hay. Kids sat on laps and on the floor, and a poodle mix with a Santa hat sat on its owner’s lap, its scruffy face resembling Santa’s beard.

The congregants wore head flashlights and held pages of Christmas song lyrics. Led by a firetruck with flashing lights and a speaker, they caroled through the town.

The firetruck’s blue and red lights reflected on the carolers’ glasses and watches and on the windows of Sutherland Springs homes. Alerted by the colors and sound, some residents came out, and the truck stopped as the carolers sang “Joy to the World” and yelled “Merry Christmas!”

Stephen Willeford, the man lauded for shooting at the gunman outside the church — and a reluctant hero who has largely avoided media attention — emerged from his home beaming. The lights reflected off his glasses and almost concealed his eyes, wet with tears. He walked around the flatbeds squeezing shoulders. They told him Merry Christmas and also: “Thank you.”

“I was overwhelmed,” Willeford said later. “After everything everyone’s been through, and they’re out there singing. God is beautiful.”

The speaker wasn’t quite loud enough this year, and Frank Pomeroy wondered out-loud if the FBI might still have the large one that was in the church.

“It’s a quiet one this year,” he said

The carolers continued on, from neighbor to neighbor, at one point driving past the ballpark, where the lights of the truck illuminated the 26 crosses — still there, still decorated with stuffed animals and flowers, love cards and small crosses.

“We don’t know when our next breath may end, what our tomorrow will be,” Frank Pomeroy had said earlier at the services.

He then pleaded to God: “Feel the hearts that are breaking… and bring them peace.”

As Workman wheeled himself out of services earlier that day, he found John Holcombe. It was the first time they had seen each other since the shooting. John reached over and hugged him fiercely.

“You’re hanging in there, right?” Workman said.

“Well,” Holcombe’s voice trailed off, the silence saying more than his words. For a moment, he was undone. And then: “Yes.”

They clung together for one beat more.

“We’ll talk more, okay?” Workman said.

“Absolutely,” Holcombe answered. “We’ll talk more.”

Workman wheeled himself to the church hall, where a game of white elephant with the congregants awaited.

Holcombe spoke briefly with his pastor, and then walked away from the church to find his children.

sfosterfrau@express-news.net | @SilviaElenaFF

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