SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas – As the hundreds gathered at the new First Baptist Church building in Sutherland Springs sat or stood in silence Sunday morning, 26 names were read off - the names of people who will never have a chance to attend service there.
A year and a half earlier, on Nov. 5, 2017, a gunman entered the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, killing 26 people, including an unborn child, and devastating the small church and surrounding community.
However, the members of the church have been determined to move forward and show “evil did not win.” The congregation has more than doubled, by the pastor’s estimate, and on Sunday morning, the church opened up its new worship center and education building with a dedication ceremony.
"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 reporters after Sunday's dedication.
The project was funded by the North American Mission Board on behalf of Southern Baptists, said a member of the NAMB communications team, and 60 companies donated services or materials.
However, the members of the church are acutely aware of the price that was paid in human lives.
"Those people's lives are the reason that we have that church today. There's no doubt about, " said survivor David Colbath. "They're martyrs. They're people that died and did nothing wrong."
The 26 lives are honored in the new building, especially in a memorial room adorned with their photos and names. Directly above the room hangs the same bell that used to ring in the original church.
Pastor Frank Pomeroy said the children of the church used to race to get his permission to ring the bell, which would let the Sunday school know it was time for church services to start.
This Sunday, though, the bell rang somberly for each of the victims.
"Many of the children that rang that bell are no longer with us," said Pomeroy, whose own daughter was killed in the shooting. "Our shooter had the propensity to seek out children. And for that reason, that bell means more now to me than it did even previous."
The shooting shaped the creation of the new building in other ways, too. Without going into specific details, Pomeroy said many things have been put into place to help protect worshippers.
"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.
The original church building, which was the site of the shooting, still stands as a memorial to the victims. However, Pomeroy said the church has not yet made a decision on what it will do with the building in the long term.
Whatever happens, he said, that corner of land will always be hallowed ground.
Sen. John Cornyn and Gov. Greg Abbott both attended and spoke at the ceremony.