Texas church opens for first time since shooting

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas -- A line of about 85 people snaked from the entrance of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs and curved around the block as the house of worship opened its doors to the public at 5 p.m. for the first time since a deadly shooting last Sunday.

The inside of the church had been transformed into a memorial. Broken windows and ceiling tiles had been replaced. Bullet holes were filled.

But the vibrant church's sandy stained pews, the carpet and all equipment had been removed. The walls, floor and pulpit were painted white.

Twenty-six white chairs — including one for the unborn baby of one victim who was pregnant — were placed where each congregant was sitting when they were shot. A red rose was tied to each chair, and a pink rose for the unborn baby.

Names or nicknames were painted in gold on each chair. A recording of scripture readings from a previous church service played as small groups of people walked around the room silently.

Associate Pastor Mark Collins says people traveled from as far away as the East Coast to pray at the site of the shooting. He says that while they will be allowed inside the church to take part in the memorial, it was set up with members in mind.

Collins says constructing the memorial wasn't an easy decision because some members have said they never wanted to again step foot in the place where they lost so many friends or family members. But, he says, other members and family of those who were killed needed to see the church.

He says the memorial was a way to honor the victims without focusing on the shooting.

He says the church has reached out to the family of shooter Devin Kelley, and that church members are praying for Kelley's family.

The congregation will hold services on the grounds of the church next week. Collins says those services likely will take place in a makeshift structure.

He says church members will have to decide whether to demolish the church, but plans are also being discussed to build a new structure nearby.