SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (AP) – Hundreds of mourners crowded into the tiny town of Sutherland Springs for the first Sunday service since a gunman stormed the First Baptist Church a week earlier, killing more than two dozen people in the worst mass shooting in Texas history.
In a service that was emotional and painful but also uplifting, Pastor Frank Pomeroy shared his personal heartache and a message that the community bound together by faith can move past the evil that attacked the church seven days earlier.
“Rather than choose darkness as that young man did that day, we choose life,” said Pomeroy, whose 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was among those killed in the Nov. 5 rampage. His voice cracked as he spoke about losing his child.
“I know everyone who gave their life that day,” he said, pausing to gather himself. “Some of whom where my best friends and my daughter.” He wiped his eyes, then added, “I guarantee they are dancing with Jesus today.”
Initially, the church had planned to hold Sunday’s service at an adjacent community center, which can accommodate a few dozen people. But when organizers realized hundreds planned to attend, the service was moved to a massive white tent erected in a baseball field.
So many people turned up that the tent’s side flaps had to be opened for an overflow crowd so that those who couldn’t get a seat could see and hear what was going on inside. Mark Collins, a previous pastor at First Baptist, said it was the largest gathering in the church’s 100-year history.
The front three rows were reserved for survivors of the attack and the families of those killed. Many arrived early, as a steady rain fell on the tarp roof, offering hugs to each other and prayers.
Congregants wept during the service and a moving version of “Amazing Grace,” led by three singers and a man on guitar, as the voices of hundreds sang along.
Some bowed their heads, others raised their hands and swayed as the music played, and tears streamed down their faces.
“Amazing Grace” was also played at halftime at Floresville High School at Friday night’s game, in tribute to the victims.
Later Sunday, a temporary memorial was scheduled to open inside the church where 26 empty chairs have been placed. Authorities put the official death toll at 26 because one of the 25 people killed was pregnant. Church officials have said the building will likely be demolished at some point.
It will be the first time the public is allowed back to the church itself, which is expected to be demolished so a new structure can be built. Pomeroy has said it would be too painful to continue using First Baptist Church as a place of worship.
The gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, went aisle to aisle looking for victims and shot crying babies at point-blank range, according to witness accounts. The dead ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years old. About 20 people were wounded in the shooting.
Kelley died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was shot and chased by two men who heard the gunfire at the church. Investigators have said the attack appeared to stem from a domestic dispute involving Kelley and his mother-in-law, who sometimes attended services at the church but wasn’t there the day of the shooting.
Kelley had a history of domestic violence: He was given a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force after pleading guilty to assaulting his first wife and stepson.
For Sunday’s service, people from other churches dropped off handmade prayer cloths and tiny wooden crosses, among other gifts. Mental health organizations provided tissues and brought therapy dogs to the service.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn spoke at the service, saying lives were stolen as darkness overtook one man’s heart.
“The pain of losing 26 members is overwhelming,” Cronyn said. “Many lives have been changed forever. … I can’t imagine what you’ve been grappling with ever since.”
On Saturday, about 100 people gathered outside the community center to commemorate Veterans Day and honor the shooting victims, nearly half of whom had Air Force ties.
Sutherland Springs is about 30 miles (48 kilometers) southeast of San Antonio and not far from several military posts, including Lackland Air Force Base. The Air Force’s chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein, said 12 of those killed were either members of the Air Force or had family ties to it.