SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (AP) — Hundreds of people gathered in the tiny town of Sutherland Springs for the first Sunday service since a gunman stormed the First Baptist Church and killed more than two dozen people in the worst mass shooting in Texas history.
Pastor Frank Pomeroy led an emotional sermon that called on mourners to worship in the face of evil.
“Rather than choose darkness as that young man did that day, we choose life,” said Pomeroy, whose 14-year-old daughter 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 paused to wipe his eyes. “I guarantee they are dancing with Jesus today.”
The crowd stood, clapped and raised their hands to heaven as Pomeroy spoke.
The initial plan was to hold the service at the community center next to the First Baptist Church. But it can only accommodate a few dozen people, and 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 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.
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, 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.
“Maybe this will start the healing process that will get Sutherland Springs and Wilson County to put this horrific tragedy behind us and look to the future,” county Judge Richard Jackson, his voice breaking, told the Saturday crowd, which included first responders and law enforcement officers.
Jackson, the county’s top administrator, thanked the first responders and others who rushed to First Baptist Church in the aftermath of last Sunday’s shooting, which also wounded about 20 people. What they saw there will affect them the rest of their lives, Jackson said.
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.
On Saturday, two silver hearses carried the bodies of another couple, Therese and Richard Rodriguez, to a small cemetery on the edge of Sutherland Springs following a funeral.
A steady stream of people also visited a makeshift memorial of crosses adorned with flowers, photographs, red hearts and white, purple and pink balloons. Among them was Jackie Lee, who traveled from San Antonio with several friends.
“It was on my heart since it happened,” she said. “I needed to come to show the community some support, to show these people some support.”
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