By Lisa Maria Garza
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) - Congregants of the First Baptist Church in the Texas hamlet of Sutherland Springs gathered in a white tent on Sunday for their first service since a gunman opened fire last week in an attack that officials said had a death toll of 26, including an unborn fetus.
This Sunday's service began late as organizers scrambled to find extra chairs for some 500 people, roughly the equivalent of the town's entire population, who gathered at the tent erected in a muddy athletic field, a short walk from the church.
Church members and relatives of the victims sat near the front, where a wooden cross decorated in string lights had been placed on a stage against a black cloth backdrop.
"The media is amazed that we are not angry, that we are not calling for this or that," Pastor Frank Pomeroy told the congregation with an air of defiance mixed with visible grief. "Folks, we have the freedom to choose, and rather than choose darkness, as one young man did that day, I say we choose light."
The congregation gave thunderous applause. Some waved Bibles in the air. Near the back stood a dozen bikers from a nearby chapter of Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders, watching vigilantly.
Although he was out of town at the time of the attack, Pomeroy's 14-year-old daughter was among those killed by Devin Kelley, a former U.S. Air Force officer who was thrown out of the service after his conviction in 2012 for assaulting his wife and stepson. After the massacre, Kelley killed himself.
The choir from the denomination's sister church in nearby Seguin sang "Amazing Grace," bringing some to tears.
Later on Sunday, officials planned to reopen the church itself to the public as a memorial to one of the deadliest shooting massacres in modern U.S. history.
"We have the freedom to take that building that was attacked, transform it through the love of God and into a memorial to remind everyone so that we will never forget: love never fails," Pomeroy said.
(Reporting by Lisa Maria Garza; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)