'We choose life': Hundreds of Sutherland Springs mourners gather for emotional first Sunday service since attack

Hundreds of worshippers and mourners gathered yesterday in the tiny town of Sutherland Springs for the first Sunday service since a gunman stormed the First Baptist Church and killed 26 people in the worst mass shooting in Texas history.

Pastor Frank Pomeroy, whose own 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was among those killed in the 5 November rampage, led the service with an emotional sermon that called on mourners to worship in the face of evil.

ReutersFlowers decorate the fence around the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs where 26 people were killed one week ago, as the church opens to the public as a memorial to those killed, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 12, 2017.

'Rather than choose darkness as that young man did that day, we choose life,' said Pomeroy, whose voice cracked as he spoke about losing his child.

'I know everyone who gave their life that day, some of whom where my best friends and my daughter,' he said, wiping away a tear. 'I guarantee they are dancing with Jesus today.'

The crowd stood, clapped and raised their hands as he spoke.

The initial plan, according to AP, was to hold the service at a community centre next to the First Baptist Church. But that can only accommodate a few dozen people, and when organisers realised hundreds planned to attend, the service was moved to a massive white tent erected in a baseball field.

In the event, so many people turned up that the tent's flaps on each side had to be opened so that those who couldn't get a seat could see and hear what was happening inside. Mark Collins, a previous pastor at First Baptist, told AP that it was the largest gathering in the church's 100-year history.

Later on Sunday, a temporary memorial was scheduled to open inside the church where 26 empty chairs have been placed.

Reuters reported that all the pews, carpets and church equipment had been removed, and the floors were still sticky from fresh coats of paint. The windows were painted over in swirling water-colours.

ReutersA member of the media walks inside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs where 26 people were killed one week ago, as the church opens to the public as a memorial to those killed, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 12, 2017.

White, wooden folding chairs were placed in no regular pattern throughout the church, with each marking the precise spot where a victim's body was found. A single rose, decorated with white ribbon, graced every seat, with the victim's name written in gold cursive script on its back along with a cross painted in red.

As members of the media were escorted four at a time through the chapel, a recorded voice could be heard reading verses of scripture. Outside, as a steady rain fell, about 100 family members and others waited to pay their respects.

The gunman in the attack, Devin Patrick Kelley, died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was shot and chased by two men who heard the gunfire at the church. Investigators have suggested that the attack appeared to stem from a domestic dispute involving Kelley and his mother-in-law, who sometimes attended services at the church but wasn't there on the day of the shooting.

Additional reporting by Reuters.

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