Hundreds of people have gathered in a Texas town for the first Sunday service since 26 people were killed in the 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 disgraced 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 members of relatives of the victims.
‘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 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.
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.
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.