Sunday was the first time the bells of the First Baptist Church tolled in nearly two years.
In 2017, 26 people were gunned down in the small Sutherland Springs community church in what Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the largest mass shooting in state history. The youngest victim was 17 months old.
Parishioners lost the safety of their place of worship that day. This week, they got it back.
The church opened the doors of its new worship building Sunday, which is three times the size of the old one, CNN affiliate KXAN reported. Next to the sanctuary is a memorial room, and above it, a bell restored from the old church.
“Proof of this building existing here after everything is proof that God’s truth is the truth,” Julie Workman, a survivor of the shooting, told CNN affiliate KSAT.
Sunday morning, as the bells rang through the building, the names of the 26 victims were read out loud. Workman was sitting in the second row during the massacre 18 months ago, KXAN reported.
“We are left here to tell the story of God’s grace and mercy and his hand of protection that went on that day,” she told the affiliate.
The governor was also at the service and said on Twitter the ceremony and memorial “ushers in (an) era of healing for the congregation” and community.
“I have no doubt that God will continue to work through this community to write the next chapter for the remarkable and faithful people of Sutherland Springs,” Abbott said in a statement.
The Sutherland Springs community, Sen. Ted Cruz wrote on Twitter, “continues to inspire Texas and the entire nation with their strength, unity, and forgiveness.”
“Though there is a dark shadow of loss and suffering, today you raise up a new house that will proudly proclaim the light of the Gospel,” he wrote.
Everything has changed since
Pastor Frank Pomeroy, who was out of town during the shooting, lost his 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle. With her, he lost many other children of the church, who he told KSAT would run to get his permission to ring the bells for Sunday school.
Eight children were killed by the gunman, as well as an unborn child.
“Many of the children that rang that bell are no longer with us,” he told the affiliate. “Our shooter had the propensity to seek out children. And for that reason, that bell means more now to me that it did even previous.”
There are other changes around the church too. A big one, the attention to safety.
“We don’t want to look like a fortress, but we also wanted to make sure that everybody could feel safe on the inside,” he said.
Besides cameras mounted on the inside and outside walls, the church also has a safety response team, he told KXAN.
“They are going through extensive training monthly sometimes weekly,” the pastor told KXAN. “Just this weekend, de-escalation training.”