The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas church becomes a solemn memorial a week after shooting massacre

A memorial stands in First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Tex., where one week ago more than two dozen people were killed. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Tex. — They could have torn the bullet-riddled building to the ground or hidden it behind a towering construction wall, turning First Baptist Church into an eyesore full of mystery and despair.

Instead, one week after more than two dozen people were gunned down inside the small, white sanctuary, church officials did something unusual in the wake of a mass shooting: They opened the building to the public.

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Within hours, a tearful line of mourners — some of them friends and family members of victims, others visitors arriving from around the region — wrapped around the block to pray, cry and pay their respects to the deceased on a rainy Sunday night.

“In most situations like this, the building would be closed off for months, but America was attacked, and we want America to grieve with us because they’ve expressed so much love for us,” the church’s associate pastor, Mark Collins, said. “We don’t want to appear defeated. We’re back in business, and it’s God’s business.”

There was no sign of the bullets that pierced the walls, the blood that washed across the floor or the nightmarish misery that will haunt survivors of the worst mass shooting in Texas history.

First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., has reopened as a memorial to the 26 people were killed there in a shooting on Nov. 5. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

Turning a sprawling crime scene into a memorial is no simple task, Collins said. As recently as Wednesday, Texas Rangers and FBI agents were scouring the property, which sat behind multiple layers of security. The rapid transformation required a 30-person construction team working 72 hours to gut the heavily damaged structure, removing all chairs, pews and equipment, a church statement said.

“The walls were painted, windows and ceiling tiles were replaced, and carpet was removed and the floors painted,” the statement said.

Videos of recent services posted on the church’s YouTube channel reveal a lively and cluttered space with multiple television screens, band equipment, crosses hanging from the walls and multiple rows of tightly packed pews. The services there were informal and highlighted the nature of the community: Children ran and played, church members greeted each other warmly, hymns and songs came with the accompaniment of electric guitars.

Residents of Sutherland Springs, Tex., grappled with the mass shooting that took 26 lives from the community in November 2017. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Church officials said this week that the building might still be torn down, rebuilt or replaced with a permanent memorial but that the decision will be left to pastor Frank Pomeroy and his congregation, which lost nearly half its members. So far, they said, they have not made any firm decisions.

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

One local man, who lingered outside the church with his wife, said he was sad the pews had to be removed but understood why. “They looked like Swiss cheese,” said the man, who declined to give his name. He had been part of the cleanup crew and helped haul them out.

The pews were replaced with 26 “handcrafted chairs,” each adorned with a red rose and a victim’s name written in gold letters, one for each person who was killed, including a pregnant woman’s unborn child. Most of the chairs faced the front of the church, where a large wooden cross stood above a Bible surrounded by boxes of tissue. Instead of silence, the space was filled with audio recordings of Scripture readings from past church services.

Inside, groups of mourners slowly paced the church or gathered in the center of the brightly lit room to hold one another and weep. Near the back of the church, a lone police officer stood guard, a handgun on his waist.

In the line outside the church, Bradley Graf said he hadn’t been inside the building in years. As a child, he said, he attended youth services on Sunday mornings, riding his bike several miles down a county road to get there. He made the journey all on his own.

“I would get up early to get down here,” he said. “They always welcomed me.”

Minutes later, after walking through the newly renovated space, Graf appeared forlorn.

“No, thanks,” he said when asked to share his reaction to the sanctuary. “Not right now.”

Phillip Perez, a 41-year-old truck driver, made the 30-minute drive from his home in Universal City, a San Antonio suburb, to tour the memorial with his daughter. He walked out holding her hand, tears in his eyes.

“You walk into something like that and see those chairs, and you think, ‘This could be my child or my parents or me,'” he said. “It’s a very emotional experience.”

Tambria Read, 59, president of the local historical museum, said the sight of the church — now barren and colorless — was shocking and upsetting.

“I like that they have the names of the victims on the chairs,” she said. “It’s very sad. The tile is gone from the floor, and it’s stark white. It’s just sad, but it provides some closure.”

Instead of remembering the inside of the building, Read said she would remember the friends who spent time there.

“They were good-hearted people,” Read said of the victims. “The Holcombe men had great smiles. They were the kind of men who kids wanted to be their fathers and grandfathers. That’s what I’ll remember.”