The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas church, site of massacre, might be torn down and rebuilt or turned into a memorial

First Baptist Church pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife Sherri spoke out after a mass shooter killed 26 people inside their church. (Video: KENS 5)
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SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Tex. — First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, where a gunman slaughtered 26 people and injured 20 others, remains standing, but perhaps not for long.

Church leaders say they might tear down the small white church and rebuild it, but they might also create a memorial where the existing structure stands. Less than a week after the mass shooting, they have not made any firm decisions.

Pastor Frank Pomeroy, whose teenage daughter was killed in the massacre, told the Wall Street Journal that too many people “do not want to go back in there,” referring to the church, which has been full of forensic investigators and law enforcement in recent days.

Roger Oldham, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, said church leaders visited Pomeroy this week and discussed multiple scenarios for the building.

“Since that building is the scene of so much horror, Frank said he had been thinking it was in the best interest of the church to have the worship center removed and the site turned into a memorial garden,” Oldham said. “The church has not yet voted, so there is no definitive plan.”

Oldham noted that a vote would occur at the local level and would require a consensus between the congregation and the pastor.

Pomeroy could not be reached for comment Thursday, but Leonard Favela, a church spokesman, said the church is focused on other matters this week, such as “ministering to our grieving families.”

The church served the small community here and often had a few dozen congregants each week in the small service hall. Their typical weekly services — which are posted to YouTube — often opened with hymns accompanied by two electric guitarists while church members greeted each other in conversation among the pews, their children running about. Many members wore jeans and T-shirts in what appeared to be generally casual, uplifting gatherings.

The sound of hymns drifted from the country church. Then came gunfire.

For communities shattered by mass shootings, among the many things to consider in the aftermath is what to do with the sites of the bloodshed. These venues often shut down at least temporarily as they become crime scenes that need to be scoured and intensely documented.

In some cases, the particular locations never reopen, as authorities tear down the structures to cauterize the physical wounds they can represent. In other situations, officials opt to reopen the doors after a time, seeking a sense of normalcy and a show of resolve after enduring an unimaginable horror.

Some of the structures that reopened did so after being altered in some way. In 2009, two years after a gunman at Virginia Tech killed 32 people, the university reopened Norris Hall, where much of the attack occurred, and redesigned the hallway at the center of the violence.

The building at the Washington Navy Yard where a gunman opened fire in 2013 was renamed and renovated before reopening in 2015. A remembrance area was dedicated to the 12 people killed in that attack. The Aurora, Colo., movie theater where a gunman killed 12 people and wounded dozens of others in 2012 reopened several months after the shooting following a renovation.

Sue Soto drove her wounded sister, Rosa Solis, to the hospital after the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Tex., on Nov. 5, 2017. (Video: Alice Li, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The decisions to reopen the sites were not universally welcomed. Some Navy Yard workers said they were too traumatized and had to be transferred to other buildings, while others were believed to have retired rather than return to work.

Relatives of some victims of the Aurora shooting said they were appalled to be invited back to the theater for its reopening. When Virginia Tech reopened Norris Hall, the mother of one of the attack’s survivors said: “I wish they’d burn this building down.”

Other venues were fully or partially torn down and rebuilt. After a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the school was demolished and a new school reopened last year. The Columbine High School library where most of the 13 victims of that Colorado rampage were killed in 1999 was removed and another reopened to take its place.

Much like the church in Sutherland Springs, other locations have shuttered amid plans to change them into something else entirely. After a gunman at Pulse nightclub in Orlando killed 49 people there last year, the building was closed. The owner said she plans to open a memorial there and reopen the club somewhere else.

A similar question emerged after a mass shooting weeks before the Texas attack, when a gunman in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino opened fire last month on a Las Vegas concert, killing 58 people. The hotel’s operator said they would no longer rent out that suite.

Further reading:

The lives lost in Sutherland Springs, Tex.

The warning signs left behind by the Texas church gunman

Death sweeps across 3 generations of a single family gathered at Texas church

Texas church gunman, able to buy guns due to Air Force mistake, was having ‘domestic dispute’ with family