One week after the mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, the congregation gathered for its Sunday service to mourn the loss of the 26 lives while also celebrating the faith that brings them together.
The celebration of life and faith took place several blocks from the church. This Sunday service took place under an expansive white tent in a baseball field. Here a thousand mourners sang, cried and prayed.
Frank Pomeroy, pastor of the First Baptist Church, stood in front of the crowd; behind him was a wooden cross draped with Christmas lights. And while holding his bible, he preached to his flock to not to give up hope.
“We have the freedom to choose and rather than choose darkness – like that young man did that day – I say I we choose light,” said Pomeroy to applause and calls of “amen.”
Last Sunday Pomeroy was out of town when Devin Patrick Kelly arrived at his church. Wearing tactical armor and wielding an assault-style rifle, Kelly shot into the building. He then went inside and continued to target the members. Twenty-six people were killed, including Pomeroy’s 14-year old daughter Annabelle.
“I know that every one that gave their life that day – some of my best friends and my daughter and I guarantee you beyond a shadow of a doubt they are dancing with Jesus today,” said Pomeroy with his voice cracking with emotion.
Senator John Cornyn attended the memorial service and praised the Sutherland Springs community for its resilience.
“It’s clear they are people of deep faith and that’s what sustains them and gives them hope even in dark times like this,” he said.
Cornyn said people are telling him after this mass shooting we need to do something
“We need to fix this broken background check system,” he said.
The Texas Republican said he will file a bipartisan bill as soon as Monday.
“My hope is that we can expedite consideration of this, get it into law and then make sure that this sort of thing never happens again,” he said.
After the memorial, the First Baptist Church building was opened to the public.
After the sacristy was released by the Texas Department of Public Safety as a crime scene, volunteers had just 72 hours to remove the pews, rip out the carpeting, apply several coats of paint, repair shattered windows and fill in hundreds of bullet holes in the walls. Even the ceiling tiles needed to be replaced.
The interior is now an open white space. And there are white wooden chairs each adorned with a rose, labeled with the name of a shooting victim and set in the spot where that person’s body was found.
In front was a large wooden cross topped with a crown of thorns.
A recording of previous First Baptist Church Services scripture readings filled the air.
Pomeroy explained why he thought it was important to quickly open the church as a memorial.
“I want the world to know that that building will be open so everyone can see and know that the people who died lived for their lord and savior,” he said.
People lined up down the block in the drizzling rain, waiting for their turn to enter the church.
Brandy Jones, a neighbor from down the street, walked her dog and watched while wiping the tears from her face.
“I volunteered at that church. It was my food bank,” she said.
She says this shooting is going to change things in Texas.
“This is our 9-11,” she said.
It’s the 9-11 for Texas, Jones said because if this can happen in sleepy unincorporated Sutherland Springs, it can happen anywhere. She’s also worried about what happens next in Sutherland Springs.
“When the media leaves and the funerals are over — people stop bringing food and sending cards — that’s when the real deep pain is going to happen.”
The First Baptist Church will build a new sanctuary with help from donors. The refurbished church is set to be demolished and a permanent garden memorial is planned for that site.