It was only a week after a gunman turned a church service into a bloody crime scene, but on Sunday morning the doors of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs were back open. Thanks to a 30-person team working overtime for 72 hours, the Texas sanctuary was completely revamped, offering a simple, whitewashed tribute to the two dozen victims shot by Devin Kelley.
But even as mourners and community members lined up outside for a few quiet moments in the church, the congregation’s leaders admitted they were considering all options about what to do next with the site — tear the structure down? Built a permanent monument? First Baptist has yet to decide, The Washington Post reported on Monday.
The tiny Texas church is not the first place to weigh the heavy question of how best to memorialize an everyday location — from schools to office complexes to nightclubs — transformed by the sudden flash of gun violence into a symbol of national tragedy. It is a delicate question of memory and respect, healing and remembrance.
“On the surface, it appeared to be about a building,” Rich Harwood, a Bethesda-based consultant who worked with Newtown, Conn., officials told The Post in 2013. “It’s really about a community coming to grips with the trauma and the despair it is feeling.”
On April 20, 1999, Columbine High School became one of the first public spaces to go through such a high-profile identity crisis. In the space of a day, a Littleton, Colo., public school became shorthand for a new breed of school violence after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 students and a teacher in an orchestrated attack.
As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2016, the school underwent a $1.2 million renovation following the shooting. Because the majority of the violence happened in the school’s library, a new facility was constructed at another part of the school. The old library was razed and an atrium was put in its place. A permanent memorial was also constructed nearby.
In July 2012, the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo., was the scene of a shooting that claimed 12 lives and injured 70 during a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Two months after the incident, the theater’s owner, Cinemark, conducted a local survey showing the majority of residents wanted the space to reopen, the Denver Post reported. The company refurbished and renamed the theater; the first screening happened six months after the shooting, and was met with a boycott from the families of some victims.
“Our family members will never be on this earth again, and a movie ticket and some token words from people who didn’t care enough to reach out to us, nor respond when we reach out to them to talk, is appalling,” angry family members wrote at the time. “We, the families, recognize your thinly veiled publicity ploy for what it is: A great opportunity for you to distance yourselves and divert public scrutiny from your culpability in this massacre.”
Twenty students and six teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. The next year, the town held a referendum to decide what should happen to the school. NPR reported 4,504 voted to ripped the structure down and rebuild the location, with 558 voting against the measure — the town’s largest voter turnout since the 2008 presidential election.
Not all the victims were in favor of removing the site.
“The hardest thing I’m having to deal with is . . . the feeling that we didn’t just lose 20 children and six adults,” the father of a dead first-grader told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re letting [the gunman] take the building too, and he’s winning.”
The redesigned $50 million Sandy Hook Elementary opened in August 2016. The new site, however, did not include a memorial.
In an interview with NPR, Barry Svigals, one of the new school’s designers, explained: “We didn’t look back. We felt our charge was very much to look forward, and to offer the community the hold of building and creating a new school that would serve their children for many years to come.”
A separate permanent memorial is also in the works.
Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub was the scene in 2016 of the then-deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history. Omar Mateen killed 49 people at the popular LGBT club. Following the shooting, the boarded-up site became a makeshift memorial for the victims. Last May, the club’s owner Barbara Poma announced plans to form a foundation for a permanent memorial and museum at the site.
Months later, Poma also said she was looking for a new location to reopen Pulse.
“By reopening it, same name, same format that we had, it just proves, you know, that hate will not win,” she told WFTV 9. “We will not let him win.”
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