SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas ― One week after it became the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern Texas history, the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs reopened to the public on Sunday.
Gone were the pews.
Instead, 26 handcrafted chairs marked locations where worshippers were fatally shot. Each chair had a name inscribed on the backrest, and a red rose. An audio recording of scripture readings by church staff played on a loudspeaker.
The scene of an unspeakable crime had been transformed into a moving tribute to those who lost their lives.
“Everyone who walks in there will know that the people who died lived for their Lord and Savior,” the Rev. Frank Pomeroy, the First Baptist pastor, said at a Sunday service earlier in the day held under a tent nearby.
On Nov. 5, Devin Patrick Kelley attacked the church with a semiautomatic rifle. He killed 26, and wounded 20 others. As he exited the church, he was shot by an armed civilian. He fled in his SUV and was later found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
As soon as law enforcement finished processing evidence, a construction team began renovating the church building, according to a media handout. Chairs, pews, and carpet were removed from the small sanctuary. The walls and floors were painted, and the windows were replaced.
Before the media was allowed to tour the church on Sunday, a number of family members of victims were escorted inside to spend a few minutes in silence. One woman had to be held up by a chaplain as she exited the worship hall in tears.
The Rev. Mark Collins, the associate pastor, said in a press release that he hoped it would be healing for the community to be able to enter the church once more.
“This is our church, but it is not just us that are suffering,” Collins said. “This tragedy has rocked our nation, and has had an impact on all Americans and our country as a whole.”
The church will be open Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
It is unclear whether the memorial will be permanent, or whether the building will be razed.