By CLARICE SILBER Associated Press
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (AP) — A South Texas church began a fresh chapter of worship on Sunday as it unveiled a new sanctuary a year and a half after a gunman opened fire and killed more than two dozen congregants in the deadliest mass shooting in state history.
Parishioners, elected leaders and relatives of those killed or injured at the First Baptist Church in the tiny town of Sutherland Springs gathered at the new sanctuary for its dedication. Some among the hundreds in attendance wore royal blue shirts with “#evildidnotwin” written across the back.
In the large, white sanctuary amid a stained glass panel, Pastor Frank Pomeroy told the crowd they were celebrating God’s glory while remembering “those who have paid a price for this incredible facility.”
The church commemorated the victims by reading their names as the church bell rang, and those connected to them stood up in the crowd. Pomeroy’s 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, was among those killed.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott told the worshippers that despite the trying time since the attack, Sunday marked another giant step forward on a path to healing and recovery.
“This is a tangible sign as people drive through Sutherland Springs in the future they will know that this is a place where goodness triumphed over evil,” Abbott said to loud applause from the crowd.
The new worship center and memorial room honoring the victims were made possible through millions of dollars in donations from around the world. The facility features enhanced security elements, along with a new church bell tower and an additional prayer space.
A gunman shot and killed 25 people at the church on Nov. 5, 2017 . Authorities put the official death toll at 26 because one of the victims was pregnant.
Places of worship have increasingly faced targeted attacks by extremists. A shooting at a California synagogue in April left one worshipper dead and injured three others, and a white supremacist killed 51 people at a New Zealand mosque in March.
Kevin Smith, the director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said the agency is working with houses of worship nationwide to help them take proper steps to secure their facilities and prepare for potential threats.
Smith said the recent attacks have awakened many religious leaders around the country to take action and seek more guidance. He said houses of worship need to assess potential threats in their area, work with local law enforcement and empower their worshippers to be part of the planning process.
“We want to make sure during this heightened awareness, we’re going to take what was meant for harm and make it good by providing the tools that help and empowering the rest of the churches across the nation to be ready,” Smith said.
Pomeroy declined to comment on the church’s own enhanced security, but said it now has a “safety response team” made up of volunteer worshippers that’s undergoing extensive monthly and, at times, weekly training.
“We don’t want to look like a fortress, but also wanted to make sure that everybody could feel safe on the inside,” Pomeroy said.