Help arrived from all corners to transform Sutherland Springs church
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS — When the memorial to the 26 victims of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs shootings was unveiled Sunday, many were surprised that a scene of such carnage could so quickly and thoroughly be converted into a serene space for mourning, contemplation and remembrance.
Some said the stark all-white sanctuary, with 26 white chairs each carrying the name of a victim and one rose, was a heavenly vision. Others said it looked like an art installation carrying an ethereal yet powerful message honoring the dead.
Many wondered who was behind the transformation that started on the Tuesday after the shootings and took only a few days to complete in time for the unveiling one week later.
This is the story of how it happened.
Pastor Mark Collins had never had a vision from God. But then, two days after a gunman opened fire on the church, he woke up at 4 a.m.
“When the vision came, it felt like I was drinking from a fire hose,” said Collins, who served as Sutherland Springs’ associate pastor for eight years before becoming senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of Yorktown, a town south of Sutherland Springs. “I knew what we had to do.”
Later that day, he explained his idea to friend and colleague Frank Pomeroy, the pastor at Sutherland Springs whose 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was among those killed.
“What do you think?” Collins asked when he’d finished talking.
“You’re the creative one, Mark,” Collins remembers Pomeroy saying. “Let’s do it.”
Also that day, Brad Beldon, CEO of San Antonio-based Beldon construction company, had decided he wanted to do something to help. So he and company President Danny Mendez drove down to a feed store near the church to make a donation. The store credit card reader wasn’t working, so he drove over to the church and started handing out business cards to law enforcement officials.
“I’d tell them, ‘Let us know what we can do to help,’” he said, hoping one of the cards would make its way to whomever was in charge.
That night, he got a call from Collins, who explained his concept for the memorial chairs and flowers.
“Consider it done,” Beldon responded.
Jeremy Willingham of J&K Painting in New Braunfels had never met or done business with Dallas-based C4 General Contractor. But when C4’s Mark A. Westbrook called, apparently after doing a web search for a painting company near Sutherland Springs, and asked if he’d be willing to help construct the memorial, Willingham said, “We have a lot going on, but I’ll drop everything to help them rebuild.”
Meanwhile, Beldon was finding that getting the proper chairs was easier said than done.
“We didn’t have any guidelines, other than they wanted something simple,” he recalled. “So we went from store to store looking and looking, but we couldn’t find anything we liked that fit that bill.”
Finally, Armando Romero, a Beldon employee, drove to the Ikea in Round Rock and purchased 26 white Terje folding chairs.
“We saw the chair online and knew it would be perfect for what we needed,” Beldon said.
Later that evening, San Antonio calligrapher Tracy Bellion received a call from a woman who identified herself as Emily Kustoff. Without offering any details, Kustoff asked if Bellion would be able to paint 26 names on 26 chairs.
“I knew immediately what she was talking about,” said Bellion. “It was Sutherland Springs.”
According to Collins’ vision, each white chair would carry the name of one of the shooting victims on the front and a red cross on the back. His idea was that, viewed from the main doors at the back of the church and against the planned white backdrop of the building interior, the crosses would look like they were floating in air.
Bellion agreed to do the painting, adding that, to finish them in time, she’d need to have the chairs first thing Thursday.
“The next morning they didn’t show up,” she said with a laugh.
Willingham; his father, Kevin; and another worker, Anidal Bernal, arrived at the church early, ready to work, shortly before Texas law enforcement officials retreated from the church. The crime scene became a construction site.
According to those who were there, the wood-shingled building was riddled with hundreds of bullet holes, many of which had pierced the walls completely.
Although the bodies had been removed, the inside was still “horrific,” according to Willingham. The pews, carpeting and walls were bullet-ridden and stained with blood. The front doors to the church were so shot up they’d eventually have to be replaced.
“My first thought was ‘how did this man shoot so many bullets?’” Willingham said.
Some, including Collins, saw signs of hope in the fact that a large wooden cross that stood to the side of the altar and a family Bible once owned by Dr. John Sutherland Jr., who originally settled the area, were both unscathed during what officials estimate was an 11-minute shooting spree.
“The first thing we realized we needed to do was to patch the holes,” Willingham said. “We didn’t want the community to see that.”
They used a joint compound mix to fill the holes in the outside wall and put a new coat of white paint on the entire building. Inside, workers removed the carpeting, changed out damaged ceiling tiles and replaced broken colored window panes with translucent vinyl tiles made to replicate those that were unscathed.
At its largest, the construction crew at the site numbered about 30, according to Collins, with the Red Cross on hand serving them food and drinks.
Back in San Antonio, the Ikea chairs were finally delivered to Bellion’s home at about 9 that evening. With help from her daughter-in-law Tiffany Johnson, who painted the red crosses on the chairs, Bellion began painting a victim’s name on each one. She didn’t finish until about 4:30 the next morning.
“It was the most emotional, the most meaningful, project I’ve ever done,” she said. “If I never paint another project in my life I’ll be fulfilled.”
Bellion was so moved by what she was doing, she searched each name online to learn as much as she could about the person before painting their name. She also kept the family groups together, finishing chairs for all members of the Holcombe family who died by gunfire, for example, before moving on to the next person.
While Bellion praised Collins’ “beautiful vision” for the memorial, she did make a minor change. Collins initially suggested the names be painted in an off-white color.
“But on the white chairs that wouldn’t show up very well,’ she said. Instead, she painted the names in a pale gold so they’d subtly pop.
After finishing the painting of the outside of the building the day before, Willingham and his team turned their attention to the inside. The bottom half of the inside walls was covered with wood paneling that was so bullet-riddled, they decided to rip it out and replace it.
They also painted the walls and floor a stark glossy white.
“We’ve had a lot of people tell us it looks the way they imagine heaven looks like,” Collins said.
Read more, plus video and photos at San Antonio Express News
Header photo: Mark Collins, who formerly served as associate pastor at the church that saw Sunday’s massacre, returned to Sutherland Springs to show support and comfort victims of the shooting that claimed 26 lives, and wounded many more.
Photo credit: William Luther /San Antonio Express-News