Houses of worship are among the few regular gathering places left for families, sometimes extended ones and sometimes across many generations. The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., is no different. And within those walls on Sunday morning, together as always, were three generations of the Holcombe family.
Bryan Holcombe was walking up to the pulpit, preparing to lead the congregation in worship, when a gunman identified by officials as Devin Kelley began to spray bullets at the worshipers.
Holcombe, an associate pastor for the church, was killed in the gunfire, his parents, Joe and Claryce Holcombe, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Karla Holcombe, Bryan Holcombe’s wife of about four decades, was killed, too, Joe Holcombe said.
Bryan and Karla Holcombe’s son Marc Daniel Holcombe, 36, also was killed, Joe Holcombe said.
Marc Daniel had an infant daughter, Noah Holcombe, who, was a year old, Joe Holcombe said. She is dead, too.
Another son of Bryan and Karla, John Holcombe, survived, but his wife, Crystal Holcombe, who was pregnant, did not.
Crystal had five children. Three of them, Emily, Megan and Greg, died. The two others survived.
That’s eight members of the extended Holcombe family dead, in addition to the unborn baby.
All at once, Joe and Claryce Holcombe lost children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a future great-grandchild.
The act of violence that claimed lives from generations of their loved ones took place in the space that mattered to them most: their church.
The Holcombes were among the 26 people authorities say were killed in Sunday’s mass shooting, described by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) as the worst in Texas history.
As the morning stretched to afternoon and evening, friends and family members in South Texas posted on Facebook, asking whether anyone had heard from their loved ones.
Joe and Claryce Holcombe first heard about the shooting an hour after it happened, from a phone call from a member of the church they attend, a different Baptist church in nearby Floresville, Tex.
“He said there was a big shooting and he didn’t say much more than that,” said Joe Holcombe, 86.
Then in a conversation with the church’s head pastor, they started to hear the wrenching news.
“Bryan and Karla?” Joe Holcombe asked.
“They’re both in heaven,” the pastor responded. As the day went on, they would learn of the others.
John Holcombe, who teaches Sunday school and runs the audio for Sunday services at First Baptist Church, was struck by shrapnel in his leg, he told his parents by phone later that day. His daughter remained hospitalized Sunday night, mostly for observation, Joe Holcombe said. She was injured when someone fell on her, Claryce Holcombe said.
Their grandparents described the couple as “fantastic” parents, and a “happy family.”
Crystal Holcombe home-schooled her five children and was heavily involved in the church, like the rest of the family. On Facebook, she reported proudly of the children’s successes in competitions for their local 4-H club, and wrote about a recent bake sale in which the girls participated, benefiting families affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Rojean Staggs, 66, of Floresville, said she had rented an apartment to Crystal and described her as a sweet and natural mother to a large brood.
“Crystal was a breath of fresh air. She loved children,” Staggs said. “She had a full house and just seemed to take to it beautifully.”
Staggs said Crystal had lost her first husband to cancer and been married to her second husband, John, for just a few years.
John Holcombe posts frequently about his lesson plans for Sunday school. For this week, he planned to focus on Exodus 16, he wrote in a Facebook post. It describes how God provided the Israelites with bread from heaven as they traveled for 40 years in the desert.
Bryan Holcombe was filling in Sunday for the church’s lead pastor, who was out of town.
And according to his parents, the associate pastor has been involved in church work since he was young.
“We knew when he was born that he was going to be a preacher,” Joe Holcombe told The Post. “His first word was ‘God.’ ”
His first sentence? “See the light.”
On his Facebook page, Bryan Holcombe is shown hoisting his grandchildren on his shoulders, dressing up in costumes for church events and playing his ukulele. He would often play the instrument and sing for prison inmates, a relative told the Associated Press.
“Grandkids, it doesn’t get any better!” Bryan Holcombe wrote on Facebook on one photo of his many grandchildren. “I’ll wake up at night and, in prayer, thank God for each of them . . . it takes a while:-).”
He and Karla lived near his parents, between Floresville and Sutherland Springs. He ran a business on his parents’ farm, making tarps for cattle trailers, Joe Holcombe said.
Bryan and Karla Holcombe were high school sweethearts. One day, their high school was selling roses, offering to deliver them to the classrooms. So Bryan Holcombe delivered a rose to each of Karla’s classes that day.
“He thought she was cute, and she was,” Joe Holcombe said.
Karla Holcombe had the “gift of hospitality,” her mother-in-law said. She had planned to host the family’s Thanksgiving gathering.
Joe and Claryce Holcombe, who are retired teachers, hosted a group of nearby pastors and churchgoers at their home on Sunday as they waited for details about the deceased. They prayed together.
“It’s of course going to be difficult,” Joe Holcombe said.
But, he said, “we are Christians; we have read the book. We know the ending, and it’s good.”
“They’re in heaven,” he added. “And they’re a lot better off than we are.”
The shooting at First Baptist Church shattered scores of other families in this rural, tight-knit community.
Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of First Baptist Church, told ABC News that he did not attend the church service but that his teenage daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, 14, was killed.
“She was very quiet, shy, always smiling, and helpful to all,” Cynthia Rangel, 50, a resident of Stockdale, Tex., said of Annabelle Pomeroy. Rangel, a local emergency medical technician, said she knew three people who were hospitalized after the shooting and were undergoing surgery. “This just all seems like it’s not real.”
As Michael Ward pulled wounded congregants out of the church, he searched for his sister-in-law, three nieces and a nephew, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
“My nephew was outside with four bullets in him,” he said of Ryland Ward, 5.
“And Rhianna, the bullet broke her glasses, and broke ’em off, and she said she hid underneath the pew and didn’t get hit,” he said of his 9-year-old niece.
Sandy Ward told MSNBC that her 5-year-old grandson was in surgery and that her 7-year-old granddaughter was killed.
She waited at the hospital Sunday with her son.
“He’s a wreck, of course, as you can imagine,” Ward told MSNBC. “I’m just in shock.”
“I’m numb,” she added. “My whole body’s just numb.”
Joe and Claryce Holcombe said they’re still coming to terms with what happened. The shooter, Joe Holcombe said, is “being rewarded right now for what he did, and for all of eternity.”
But, Claryce added, “we need to pray for his family, because they’re going through a terrible time, too.”
“God will see us through,” Joe Holcombe said. “We’ll all be together soon.”
Eva Ruth Moravec in Sutherland Springs, Tex., contributed to this report.
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