Hundreds of people have gathered in a Texas town for the first Sunday service since 26 people were killed in a church mass shooting a week ago.
Pastor Frank Pomeroy led congregants of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Sunday as roughly 500 people crowded into a white tent for an emotional service near the site of the massacre.
Pomeroy’s 14-year-old daughter was among those killed when former US Air Force officer Devin Kelley opened fire during last week’s Sunday service.
The church is set to be demolished and rebuilt elsewhere given the painful reminder it currently poses for the relatives of the victims.
Hundreds of people crowded into a white tent near the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Sunday for the first church service since 26 people were gunned down last week
‘Rather than choose darkness as that young man did that day, we choose life,’ Pomeroy told the congregation on Sunday to thunderous applause.
Some waved Bibles in the air, while a dozen bikers from a nearby chapter of Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders watched vigilantly from the back.
‘I know everyone who gave their life that day,’ Pomeroy said as he spoke of losing his child.
‘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 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.
When organizers realized hundreds planned to attend – roughly the equivalent of the town’s entire population – the service was moved to 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. Twenty-six chairs were left empty in honor of those who were killed.
The gunman died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was shot and chased by two men who heard the gunfire at the church.
‘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 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.