By BosNewsLife Americas Service
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, USA (BosNewsLife)-- Surviving members of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Texas held their first Sunday service since a gunman killed 25 of their fellow parishioners' and an unborn child last week in what was the U.S. state's worst shooting on record.
Organizers initially planned to gather inside a local community center, but soon realized there wasn’t enough room for the hundreds of people — so they moved the event to a local baseball park.
The sprawling white tent was already packed with hundreds of mourners while others were spilling outside beneath an overcast sky, by the time Pastor Frank Pomeroy began to speak in front of a wooden cross wrapped in holiday lights.
It was the same moment that a week earlier, with Pomeroy out of town, Devin Kelley entered the small white church and started shooting members of the pastor’s beloved congregation. Armed with an assault-style rifle, he killed 26 people, including a pregnant woman’s unborn child, while injuring more than 20 others.
"We have the power to choose, and, rather than choose darkness, like that young man did that day, I say we choose life," added Pomeroy, whose 14-year-old daughter was among those killed in the November 5 shooting.
"Victory has a price," Pomeroy told those gathered. "You cannot be victorious in battle without being wounded in battle." Pomeroy began to break down while speaking. "I know everyone who lost their life that day," he said, "some of which were my best friends, and my daughter, and I guarantee without any shadow of a doubt they are dancing with Jesus today. God gets the glory."
The pastor told the crowd that his church would reopen to the public as a memorial. It had been cleaned, painted and had audio from previous services playing in the background, he explained.
“I haven’t seen this done in other catastrophes,” Pomeroy acknowledged. “But I want the world to know that that building will be open so that everyone who walks in there will know that the people who died lived for their Lord and Savior.”
People from around the state and distant corners of the country traveled to show their support for the small Texas community of about 600 residents. One man told reporters that drove from Dallas, while another couple said they drove from North Carolina.
Texas Senator John Cornyn was also among those attending and later told reporters: "It's clear they're people of deep faith. That's what sustains them and gives them hope, even during dark times like this."
Cornyn praised Pastor Pomeroy and his faith which, he said, endures despite having suffered his tragic loss. "I saw him standing there at the front of the church, comforting others. It's remarkable, but it's a testament to their faith and their compassion for others during this very difficult time."
The service came shortly after the community buried the first of the victims on Saturday, November 11, in a remote cemetery where a series of funerals is being held this week. Richard Rodriguez, 64, and his wife, Therese, 66, both cancer survivors, were buried in the corner of Sutherland Springs Cemetery with about 250 family members and friends looking on.
The cemetery is 1.6 kilometers (a mile) from Sutherland Spring’s First Baptist Church. Rodriguez, a retired railroad worker, was fun-loving and a devoted family man, his younger brother Tony Rodriguez said before a church service earlier in the day in the nearby city of La Vernia.
"He was happy, joyful, always joking around. He loved his family," Rodriguez told reporters. “He was always there when we needed him,” he said through tears.
The father of the church gunman has said his family is in mourning. “We are grieving, our family is grieving,” Michael Kelley told American media.
After committing the atrocity, the 26-year-old exchanged gunfire with Stephen Willeford, who struck him in the leg and torso with his rifle before jumping into a vehicle driven by Johnnie Langendorff to chase the gunman.
Kelley finally hit a stop sign and veered off the road about 16 kilometers (10 miles away) – killing himself with a gunshot to the head.
Authorities have said the shooting did not appear to be fueled by racial or religious issues, as has been the case with other rampages
at U.S. houses of worship.
Instead, they mentioned the gunman’s troubles with relatives, saying Kelley had been sending "threatening texts” to his mother-in-law, who was not at the First Baptist Church when he opened fire on the congregation. His former wife said he had a lot of “hatred inside him” and threatened to kill her whole family.
Tessa Brennaman, 25, told American television that he was abusive towards her and even threatened to shoot her after she received a speeding ticket. "He just had a lot of demons or hatred inside of him," Brennaman said. "He had a gun in his holster right here and he took that gun out and he put it to my temple and he told me, 'Do you want to die? Do you want to die?'"
They divorced in 2012.