SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (AP) – A South Texas church begins a new chapter of worship on Sunday as it unveils a new sanctuary a year and half after a gunman opened fire and killed more than two dozen congregants in the deadliest mass shooting in state history.
Worshippers, elected leaders and relatives of those killed or injured at the First Baptist Church in the tiny town of Sutherland Springs are expected to gather at the new sanctuary for a dedication ceremony on Sunday. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott will also attend the opening and deliver remarks at the new facility.
The new worship center and memorial room honoring the victims was made possible through millions of dollars of donations and other worldwide support. The facility features enhanced security elements, along with a church bell tower and another additional prayer space.
A gunman shot and killed 25 people at the church on Nov. 5, 2017 . Authorities put the official toll death at 26 because one of the victims was pregnant.
Rod Green, the grounds steward of the church, said the new facility has security cameras and there is now a “response team” made up of designated worshippers.
“I mean it’s a big beautiful building, it’s a new house of worship for God and there’s been a hell of a price paid, 26 deaths for it,” Green said.
It comes as places of worship around the world face targeted attacks by extremists, including a shooting at a California synagogue in April that left one worshipper dead and injured three others.
Kevin Smith, the director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said the center is working with houses of worship nationwide to help them take proper steps to secure their facilities and prepare for potential threats.
“We want to make sure during this heightened awareness we’re going to do take what was meant for harm and make it good by providing the tools that help and empowering the rest of the churches across the nation to be ready,” Smith said.