Nearly a week after a gunman unleashed several minutes of hell on a congregation of Texas churchgoers, the long journey toward healing has begun.
The first funerals for the victims of the massacre at First Baptist Church will be held this weekend, and the community will come together for its first Sunday service since Sutherland Springs was changed forever.
The church, now pock-marked with hundreds of bullets, blood stains and shattered windows, has been rendered uninhabitable. Sunday’s service, organized by pastors from around the area, will be held at the community center next door. Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of First Baptist Church who lost his 14-year-old daughter in the shooting, is scheduled to speak.
In simpler times, the white walls of the church vibrated with hymns, prayers, and sermons praising Christ.
Several dozen people, many of them casually dressed in jeans and T-shirts, sat in the caramel brown pews of its unpretentious worship hall; its altar little more than a carpeted stage.
Now, Pastor Pomeroy wants to tear down the church and possibly build a memorial in its place for the more than 20 people who died there.
“This was just the pastor discussing what he thinks [the] best case scenario would be,” Roger Oldham, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, told CNN. “But the church has to make the decision together to tear down the church.
“Everything is in such grief mode right now in this church [that] these decisions will have to unfold as they come for the people there. It will be in their own timeline.”
Charlene Uhl lost her 16-year-old daughter, Haley Krueger, who had loved going to the church and attended youth group there twice a week.
“I think the church should be held elsewhere,” Uhl told Spectrum News, a CNN affiliate. “Still have the church, but this particular one be gone.”
In previous mass shootings, decisions on what to do with the site have varied.
Sandy Hook Elementary School in rural Connecticut where 20 children and six staff were killed, was razed to make way for a new school that opened in 2016. The Pulse in Orlando, in which 49 people were killed at the LGBT nightclub, is to be turned into a memorial, the owner had said.
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston re-opened its venerable structure days after nine people were killed in a racially motivated shooting.
White crosses stand near the church in memory of the victims as well-wishers and community members stopped to pray, and left behind flowers and messages of love.
The small church was an anchor in the unincorporated community, which lies about 30 miles east of San Antonio. It’s where neighbors sang hymns, shared their lives and prayed for each other.
The 25 victims have been identified:
Robert Marshall, 56; Karen Marshall, 56; Keith Braden, 62; Tara McNulty, 33; Annabelle Pomeroy, 14; Peggy Warden, 56; Dennis Johnson, Sr., 77; Sara Johnson, 68; Lula White, 71; Joann Ward, 30; Brooke Ward, 5; Robert Corrigan, 51; Shani Corrigan, 51; Therese Rodriguez, 66; Ricardo Rodriguez, 64; Haley Krueger, 16; Emily Garcia, 7; Emily Hill, 11; Gregory Hill, 13; Megan Hill, 9; Marc Holcombe, 36, Noah Holcombe, 1; Karla Holcombe, 58; John Holcombe, 60; Crystal Holcombe, 36, who was pregnant and her unborn child, Carlin Holcombe, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The gunman’s troubled history
The gunman, Devin Kelley, had a troubled past and was prone to domestic violence and animal cruelty, according to public records and those who knew him.
As an airman in New Mexico, he was convicted in military court in 2012 of assaulting his then-wife and stepson. While awaiting that military trial, he escaped from a New Mexico mental health facility where he had been confined.
The Air Force acknowledged it did not appropriately relay Kelley’s court martial conviction for domestic assault to civilian law enforcement, as required, preventing the conviction from showing up in a federal database that licensed gun dealers must check before someone can buy a firearm.
Kelley posted on social media about his rifle and his affinity for mass shootings. A neighbor of his said that in the week before the shooting, he heard gunshots coming from Kelley’s property every morning.
He had an ongoing dispute with his in-laws from his current marriage, who attended the Sutherland Springs church, police say. Kelley’s grandmother-in-law was among those killed. And police say Kelley had a history of texting threats to his mother-in-law, who was not inside the church during Sunday’s shooting.