After a mass shooting, what will a congregation do with the sanctuary?

Schools and other sites of violence have been razed and rebuilt. But it's a different question for places of prayer and worship.
November 10, 2017
Sutherland Springs shooting
A row of crosses with the names of those killed at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron.

First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs will be razed.

After the November 5 mass shooting there, Frank Pomeroy, its grieving pastor, met with leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention. Frank Page, president and CEO of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, confirmed the decision to demolish the church.

Remaining church members had told leaders, “We can’t go back in there,” Page said. “It’s going to be a reminder of the horrific violence.”

Pomeroy and his wife, Sherri, were not at the church on Sunday when the 26-year-old assailant opened fire. But their 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was killed along with half of the congregation, including all of its Sunday school teachers and many of its band leaders.

An anonymous donor agreed to fund the construction of a new church, Page said. The convention’s North American Mission Board has offered to pay for all of the funerals even though Texas’ Crime Victims’ Compensation program would have done so.

“We’re going to take care of our own people,” Page said.

The church structure may also be in danger after hundreds of bullets pockmarked the walls.

“You wouldn’t think they’d want to relive that,” said Andy Wyatt, a resident of Sutherland Springs who built themed vacation Bible study sets for children at First Baptist Church though he was not a member. “You want to start fresh, anew.”

Schools and other sites of mass shootings have been razed and rebuilt, but with a sanctuary, worshippers have sometimes set out to reclaim their sacred space.

Michelle Walsh, a Unitarian Universalist minister who teaches courses at Boston University on trauma and theology, studied a Knoxville Unitarian Universalist Church as it recovered after a lone gunman killed two and wounded seven during a children’s play in 2008.

Pews were realigned, walls were repainted, a curtain filled with bullet holes was removed but saved. A week after the killings, the church rededicated the sanctuary in a service that included blessing the spots where the dead fell and the hanging of a plaque. The event concluded with a hymn, “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door.”

“It is a reclaiming and it is a marking of a place as not just a place of death, not just a place of loss, but of life,” Walsh said.

At Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, church members have hung pictures of the nine people, including the pastor, who were killed by a white supremacist gunman during a Bible study in the basement in 2015. They continue to meet on Wednesday nights, their open Bibles before them. Their historic sanctuary was not damaged in the shooting. 

And when six people were killed and four were wounded inside a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012, worshippers did not abandon the sanctuary and even preserved some of the bullet holes.

“It frames the wound,” Pardeep Kaleka, son of former temple president Satwant Singh Kaleka, who died in the massacre, told the Associated Press. “The wound of our community, the wound of our family, the wound of our society.” —Religion News Service

Print Friendly and PDF

Email this page