SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas ― The First Baptist Church won’t be silenced.
One week after a black-clad gunman stormed its sanctuary, killing 26, members of the community packed a service hosted by the church inside a tent on a ball field about a half-mile away. The first three rows were reserved for church members. Packets of tissues were placed on each seat.
“I know every single name, every one who gave their life that day,” said the Rev. Frank Pomeroy, whose 14-year-old daughter Annabelle was among those slain. “They were my best friends, and my daughter. And I guarantee beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are dancing with Jesus.”
About 450 seats inside the tent were filled as the service began, and about 100 people were standing. Many greeted each other with long embraces.
Pomeroy implored worshippers to choose life, not darkness. He said at least 11 people had told him they have come to Christ since the killings.
“My heart breaks, but I’m excited to see what God is going to do,” he said. “I know God has a plan.”
After he spoke, worshippers sang the gospel tune “You’re a Good Good Father” with hands raised. Many cried.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) reminded worshippers that they’re not suffering alone.
“It’s only been seven days and this community is back to worship, bound together by faith,” he said. “Across this great nation, people are praying for you. They are supporting you.”
Six specially trained emotional support dogs from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, were brought to the service to comfort members of the community.
Sunday’s service will “show the world that we may be knocked down temporarily but WE ARE NOT DEFEATED,” wrote Sherri Pomeroy, wife of the pastor. “Please come help us honor their lives doing what they died for: worshipping our sovereign God!”
Seven days earlier, Devin Patrick Kelley ambushed the church with a semiautomatic rifle. For seven minutes, he creeped around the pews, methodically shooting victims in the head, according to security footage reviewed by law enforcement. As he exited the church, he was shot at by an armed civilian. He fled in his SUV and was later found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Kelley appears to have targeted the church because his wife’s family worshipped there, authorities said. His mother-in-law, Michelle Shields, was a member, as was his grandmother-in-law, Lula White, who he killed. According to a church directory, his wife Danielle Shields also was once a member, although it’s unclear if she still worshipped there.
Authorities said Kelley was involved in a “domestic situation” with his wife’s family and had sent threatening texts to his mother-in-law, who was not at church on the day of the massacre. A friend of hers told The New York Times that Kelley had been abusing his wife “physically, verbally and mentally.” He was convicted of abusing his first wife when he was in the Air Force.
About one-quarter of the First Baptist Church congregation was slaughtered in the shooting. Another 20 people were injured. Funerals began this weekend.
The church has been closed since the day of the massacre. It will reopen to the public on Sunday afternoon as a memorial. Visiting hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. It is unclear if it will remain open permanently.
Pomeroy had said earlier that because the church held such painful memories for his congregation, he would like to see it razed so a new church can be built on the property. It’s common for sites of mass shootings to be demolished or repurposed into memorials.
The church said in a news release on Saturday that volunteers had restored the church sanctuary from the scene of an “unspeakable event” into a “beautiful memorial that celebrates and pays tribute to the lives that were lost.”
Joe Ybarra, 46, an employee of the Valero gas station across the street from the church, said he thought it was a good idea.
“I know some people may not want to go in there because of the reminders, but it might be good for the survivors to have some closure and move on,” Ybarra said.
He added that he would like to visit the memorial.
“I will go in there to pray for them,” he said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) proclaimed Nov. 12 as a Day of Prayer.