Sutherland Springs church opening new sanctuary 18 months after massacre

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 sanctuary for a dedication Sunday. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to deliver an address at the ceremony.

The new worship center and memorial room honoring the victims was made possible through millions of dollars of donations from around the world. The facility features enhanced security elements, along with a church bell tower and an additional prayer space.

Rod Green, the grounds steward, said the facility now has security cameras and 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.

A gunman shot and killed 25 people at the church on Nov. 5, 2017 . Authorities put the official death toll at 26 because one of the victims was pregnant.

Places of worship have increasingly faced targeted attacks by extremists. A shooting at a California synagogue in April left one worshipper dead and injured three others. A white supremacist killed 51 people at a New Zealand mosque in March.

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're going to 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.