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Texas congregants hold memorial on first Sunday since mass church shooting

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Roses are placed on chairs for the victims of last week's shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs as a memorial to those killed in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Nov. 12, 2017. Rick Wilking / Reuters Roses are placed on chairs for the victims of last week's shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs as a memorial to those killed in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Nov. 12, 2017. Rick Wilking / Reuters

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — Surviving members of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs gathered as a congregation Sunday for the first time since a massacre took 26 of their fellow parishioners' lives a week ago.

Organizers of the memorial service said they'd first planned to gather inside a local community center, but soon realized there wasn’t enough room for the hundreds of people who planned to attend — so they moved the event to a local baseball park.

Hundreds of folding chairs were set up on the field under a white tent, with the first three rows reserved for members of First Baptist Church and their families, The Associated Press reported.

A steady drizzle fell as grief-stricken churchgoers prayed quietly or hugged one another, according to the AP. Other churches provided prayer cloths and small wooden crosses, while mental health organizations provided tissues and therapy dogs.

First Baptist Church Pastor Frank Pomeroy, whose daughter, Annabelle, was one of the victims, led the service. Her funeral is scheduled for Monday.

"I say we choose light," Pomeroy told the mourners. "Not the darkness that the gunman did."

Pomeroy said that those who died were "dancing with Jesus today" and that the attack was only a temporary setback. They, as Christians, would be victorious if they continued to worship their God, he said.

"It is truly remarkable," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters after the service. "What I said when I spoke is that most of this defies our powers of comprehension, but not Pastor Pomeroy. He realized that there is a higher power that is in charge."

Pomeroy and his wife were out of town when the shooting occurred.

"I saw him standing there in the front of the church comforting others, and he lost his 14-year-old daughter," Cornyn added. "Remarkable. A testament to their faith and compassion for others during this very difficult time."

The congregation planned to do more this mournful week.

The church said it had undertaken a number of efforts to transform the site into a memorial. With the help of volunteers, organizers labored round the clock over 72 hours to repair and restore the sanctuary.

All that work was meant "to remind everyone that love never fails," Pomeroy said on Sunday.

The church opened the memorial to the public late Sunday afternoon.

"This is our church, but it is not just us that are suffering,"” Associate Pastor Mark Collins said in a statement. "This tragedy has rocked our nation, and has had an impact on all Americans and our country as a whole. It is our hope that this will be healing for everyone."

Nearly everything inside the memorial was painted a bright white, including the 26 folding chairs placed at various points throughout the single room. Each chair was affixed with a red rose and carried the name of a victim in gold cursive.

A lone chair carried a pink rose and bore the name "Baby Holcombe" for the pregnant woman's unborn child.

Near the front of the nave sat a large wooden cross with a crown of thorns at its top. A recording of a church service is the only sound that breaks the silence.

Last week, a spokesman for the church said Pomeroy planned to demolish the building. But those plans are less certain now, and church officials said Saturday that the white, wood-frame chapel will remain open as a memorial, 12 hours a day, five days a week.

It's still up in the air how long the memorial will stay, as the congregation continues to consider the building's future.

"The members of the church will make this decision in the far future," Collins told NBC News. "We wanted to do this so they had options, but we wanted them to make the decisions. If it did come down, there would be something in this footprint to memorialize those who were lost."

Collins added that members want to hold a service on the grounds next Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Convention has said it will pay for the victims’ funerals.

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