CHARLESTON, South Carolina – Hundreds gathered for the first Sunday service at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church since a gunman shot and killed nine people here, including the church’s pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
Just moments before the start of the service, a melody spilled from the church’s organ and over the sanctuary, cascading over hundreds who packed the pews.
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As the choir, dressed in crisp whites, began to sing, the congregation rose. Many stood with their hands raised high in praise or their heads bowed low in reflection.
“The doors to the church are open,” Rev. Dr. Norvell Goff said as police lined the walls of the historic black church, the oldest of its kind in the American South. “No evil doer on earth can close these doors.”
True to the black church tradition, as the preacher preached the congregation responded in kind, a familiar reassurance for many that even in this time of heartache there is unity in collective faith.
The emotional service, described as an opportunity for “healing” the community, came just four days after Dylann Root, a 21-year-old white man, massacred black churchgoers during a Bible study Wednesday night in what authorities have called a racially-motivated hate crime.
“Remember those who lost their lives Wednesday evening,” Rev. Dr. Richard Norris said Sunday, repeating the names of the slain men and women. “We are reminded this morning of the freshness of death that comes like a thief in the night.
“Many of our hearts are broken, many of us are still shedding tears,” he continued. “But I know a man who can answer all of our questions. But you and I must bring our burdens to the Lord and leave them there.”
The service drew a diverse crowd of mourners and worshippers, activists and politicians, who all rose, prayed, and sang together. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley hugged Sen. Tim Scott before taking her seat in the pews, where Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum could be seen sitting next to liberal civil rights activist Deray McKesson.
Taking the pulpit for the main sermon, Rev. Goff sounded a message of strength, resilience and justice, but also of restraint.
“I’m reminded that there are other challenges that face us, does not go unnoticed, does not mean we’re unaware of the problems that many of us face not only in America but in South Carolina and Charleston,” Goff said. “But there’s a time and place for everything and now is the time for us to focus on the families.”
“If you’re going to raise hell you have to know why you’re raising hell,” he continued, thanking Gov. Haley and law enforcement for catching the killer. “Respect gets respect. A lot of people expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot. Well they just don’t know us.”
But Rev. Goff also said there should be no confusion that the community would pursue justice. “We’re going to be vigilant,” he said to cheers from the crowd. “The blood of the Mother Emanuel nine requires us to work until not only justice in this case but for those living in the margin of life, those less fortunate than ourselves, that we stay on the battlefield until there’s no more fight to be fought.”
There had been some wonder whether or not the church would have service, just days after a massacre just one floor below the main sanctuary. But church leaders said they received word from authorities that the church was cleared to reopen.
The reopening came though with additional security measures and police stationed throughout the church, watching over the pews. The stifling heat outside pushed its way into the church, as ushers passed around church fans and people wearing Red Cross pins handed out cold bottled water.
Roof, the admitted gunman, has been arrested and charged with nine counts of murder and a related gun charge in Wednesday’s massacre. Police say Roof sat through the Bible study meeting with his victims an entire hour before pulling out a .45 caliber handgun and opening fire on the group.
Witnesses reportedly told police that before killing his victims Roof said “You are raping our women and taking over our country.”
Among those killed at Mother Emanuel was the church’s pastor, State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., 74; Susie Jackson, 87; DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49 and Ethel Lance, 70.
Roof, an unemployed high school dropout, was arrested the following day in North Carolina after being spotted by a motorist who alerted police.
As people spilled from the church following the end of the service, Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP, stood amid the stream of churchgoers and said that what the world witnessed at Mother Emanuel on Sunday was a manifestation of great faith.
“What you see here is faith, it’s resolve, and it’s determination. And it is a testament that you can have a packed church in a sanctuary feet away from a room were slain, the following Sunday,” Brooks said. “That’s a story of faith, and that can not be explained with armchair psychology.”
He said the beginnings of healing were sparked here in Charleston, where black and white alike came to mourn the deaths of a group the preacher called “the Mother Emanuel 9,” and stand up against hate and racism. Brooks said what was said and heard during the service was confirmation of the resilience of the church family’s resilience in the face of great tragedy.
“What you heard in this church is a confirmation of what these nine students of scripture were hearing in that Bible study. We need not know the text, we need not know the subject of the Bible study, but we do know they were studying the scriptures of Jesus who emphasized forgiveness and grace,” he said. “And so the fact that you have nine people who lost their lives studying the teachings of Christ and you have a congregation trying to embody the teachings of Christ and a larger community embodying those same ideas and those same precepts and principles whether they are Christians or not.”
But Brooks also said there are grave policy concerns revealed in the shooting, that unchecked hate can only produce hate.
“The policy concerns are that when you have at least 200,000 hate crimes in a given year, where you have 784 hate groups active in this country and when you have the Confederate flag still flying in an atmosphere of hate besides a climate of caring,” he said. We have to address that.”