Hopeful. Sensitive. Nuanced.
I'm talking about the San Antonio Express-News' exceptional story on how victims of the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church massacre are doing one month after the tragedy that claimed 26 lives.
The headline, "A month after church massacre, faith and healing in Sutherland Springs," accurately reflects both the content and the tone of the piece.
As a reader, I felt like the reporter took me inside the lives of the still-grieving families who lost loved ones at the First Baptist Church on Nov. 5 — but without intruding on them.
The powerful opening paragraphs:
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS — Frank Pomeroy pauses outside his daughter’s room, unable to enter. He knows what’s inside: Annabelle’s bed, her One Direction poster and various items in shades of purple — her favorite color.
But Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, can’t look in her room yet. It reminds them too much of the girl they lost.
“It seemed like it was just yesterday I had dropped her off at school. It seemed like I had just told her, ‘I’ll see you Monday,’” the First Baptist Church pastor says, his eyes watering behind his glasses.
Pomeroy wasn’t at the church here the morning of Nov. 5 when a gunman walked in and opened fire with a military-style rifle.
Devin Patrick Kelley killed 14-year-old Annabelle and 25 others, including an unborn child, before he was shot and then killed himself during a car chase. Twenty people in the packed sanctuary were wounded. Kelley’s motive remains unclear, though he had a history of violence.
Four weeks after the church massacre, time stretches and snaps for people in this town of 600 south of San Antonio, shifting from fast to slow to fast again. One moment, it’s as if their loved ones were just there with them. The next, there’s a gaping hole, a monumental loss.
“The days run together. It’s like being on an island where you lose track of days,” Pomeroy said Thursday at his church office.
Last week, I had a less-positive reaction to a New York Times interview with the pastor. As you may recall, I found it difficult to explain precisely what rubbed me the wrong way about the Times' story:
My hesitancy to embrace this story 100 percent: This seems — to me at least — a strange story to do on the phone. Did the Times schedule an interview with Pomeroy and call him at an agreed-upon time? Or did the paper get his number somehow and just start asking questions when he answered the phone? If the latter, does it make a difference in how readers should perceive the story? Is this really the kind of circumstance where the first extensive interview is best handled on the phone?
Maybe I'm overthinking this. Maybe I should simply praise the Times for a story that offers Pomeroy ample space to tell readers what he's experiencing and feeling, mostly through an unfiltered lens.
Reading the Express-News story helped crystallize why I objected to how the Times handled the story: The national newspaper did a telephone interview with the pastor and then bragged online about its "scoop" in landing "the first extensive interview" with the pastor. Meanwhile, the San Antonio paper interviewed not just the pastor (in person) but also his wife and one of his surviving daughters in person.
And the Express-News also presented the story in a way that felt more real — more authentic — than the Times' portrayal.
One paper got a scoop. Another paper helped its community understand and identify with how fellow members of the community are coping.
The religion angle?
Nice job there, too, by the Express-News, which helps readers understand how people of faith respond to such an unimaginable tragedy:
When Jennifer Holcombe emerged from the church Nov. 5, having inexplicably survived the seven-minute massacre, she told her family she knew her husband and daughter no longer were in the church.
“I told them I know where Danny and Noah are, and I’ll see them again. And that’s how I’ll get through this,” she said.
The promise of heaven also is what Sherri Pomeroy holds onto.
“I don’t know how people without faith do it. Because if you don’t have something to hope for, what’s the reason to live?” she said. “If I didn’t have a hope that Annabelle was in heaven and that I will see her one day, why would I want to continue living?”
Joe Holcombe, 86, who lost nine members of his family spanning three generations, said he can’t find “anything bad in what happened” because the way he sees it, his family is in a better place and he’ll get to see them someday.
I'll resist the urge the copy and paste the entire story. Just trust me when I say that it's remarkable. It's hopeful. Sensitive. Nuanced.
Go ahead and read it.