SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Tex. — The small community where a gunman stormed into a church service and killed 26 people in 2017 crossed an emotional milestone on Sunday, with the dedication of a new First Baptist Church worship center that is fortified against potential future danger.
Built of beige Texas limestone, with two towers that can be seen for miles around, the new building stands just next to the old church, which became the site of one of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings when the gunman walked up the aisle spraying bullets into its pews. The old building is now a memorial to the victims.
“I think we’re rising from the ashes, and God’s blessing us like you can’t believe,” Stephen Willeford said as he stood outside the new sanctuary before the start of services on Sunday. On the day of the massacre, Mr. Willeford exchanged shots with the gunman outside the church and tried to pursue him as he fled the scene. The gunman, identified as Devin P. Kelley, was later found in a vehicle, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
More than 500 people sat elbow to elbow in the new center and filled an overflow room on Sunday to hear church leaders and state politicians proclaim the new building a testament to Sutherland Springs’ refusal to be identified by tragedy.
As spectators began filing out after the service, Pastor Frank Pomeroy, whose daughter was killed in the attack, urged the departing crowd, “Pray for Sutherland Springs, pray for these survivors, and remember, evil did not win.”
As the new building took shape, Mr. Pomeroy told reporters later on Sunday, security was an important consideration, but he said he did not want to call attention to specific safety features for security reasons. “We don’t want it to look like a fortress, but we also wanted to make sure everybody could feel safe on the inside,” the minister said.
He added that the church had created a “safety response” team capable of handling the de-escalation of threatening events, as well as incidents like a “child choking on a hot dog.”
Officials declined to give the cost of the new church building, but they said the project was financed with donations and that more than 100 companies had offered to contribute materials, labor and other services.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Senator John Cornyn, who both visited the town in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, returned on Sunday to deliver addresses dedicating the new building. Senator Ted Cruz addressed the congregation by video.
Governor Abbott, who has used a wheelchair for much of his life after being struck by a tree while jogging, said he could identify with survivors as they struggled to regain control of their lives.
“I know what it’s like to face a life-altering tragedy, to lose the ability to walk,” he said. “I know the tears that have been shed, I know the angst you have suffered. But I also know what it’s like to make it through the other side of the abyss, and I know you know that, too.”
The names of the 26 people who were killed in the massacre were read aloud at the dedication, and a bell that had been transferred from the old church and refurbished was rung for each name. The dead included nine members of a single family, including an unborn baby; the attack also left 20 people wounded, many of them severely.
When the gunfire erupted, Julie Workman was sitting in the church next to her son, Kris Workman; he was severely injured. An experienced nurse, Ms. Workman rushed around the church to attend to victims.
“It’s been up and down,” Ms. Workman said on Sunday about survivors’ efforts to rebound after the attack. “We’re left here to tell the story of God’s grace and mercy.”