Father’s Day in Charleston: ‘Holy City’ copes with horrific tragedy

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CHARLESTON, South Carolina— The sermons that many of Charleston’s preachers had written for Sunday service this Father’s Day are likely in bits and pieces or at the bottom of a trash bin. Many have undoubtedly been dashed with red lines and edits, undone by a ripple of tragedy visited upon one of the city’s most beloved congregations.

A young white man with a gun in his hand and hate in his heart opened fire on a group of black congregants at the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a Bible study on Wednesday, killing nine, including the church’s respected pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also served as a state senator. 

The killings have sent a shockwave of grief through this city— nicknamed “The Holy City” for its plethora of houses of worship— that have crashed into Father’s Day, which falls on this first Sunday following the killing.

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Pinckney, who also served as a state senator, was a husband and father of two little girls, Eliana and Malana. 

“Tomorrow is Father’s Day and most of us have already prepared our Father’s Day message, I can assure you that most of them have been torn up,” said the Rev. Nelson Rivers III, a longtime friend of Pinckney’s and pastor of Charity Mission Baptist Church in neighboring North Charleston.

Rivers, who described Pinkney as a powerful preacher and “political star,” said the murders of the senator and so many members of his flock have added a special kind of significance to this Father’s Day.

“There is anguish because these are young children. They had no reason to expect their father would not live out their full age and live to sit down with grandchildren, privileges that I had,” Rivers said, standing in his sanctuary following a prayer vigil for the shooting victims.

“That makes it painful, but it’s also a somber reminder that you must do your best work while you can. We say inside the church that you have to work while its day because night is coming for all of us,” Rivers said. “Rev. Pinckney worked while it was daytime. His legacy doesn’t have to be made up or manufactured, he has a living legacy because he did great work while he was living, both as a father and as a pastor, both as a legislator and a friend.”

Admitted gunman Dylann Storm Roof, 21, has been arrested and charged with nine counts of murder and a related gun charge in the Mother Emanuel 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. As the crackle of gunfire ripped through the fellowship hall, Pinckney’s wife and his younger daughter hid beneath a desk in his office. Others in the bible study dove to the ground and played dead.

RELATED: 5 chilling details from the Charleston massacre

Witnesses reportedly told police that before killing his victims Roof said “You are raping our women and taking over our country.” All of Roof’s victim’s were shot multiple times.

Among those killed at Emanuel A.M.E Church 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. 

“These were devout Christians and they were faithful. Our scriptures and our faith teach us that this was not the end for them. So either we believe that or we don’t, we cannot live in two worlds.”
Rev. Nelson Rivers III

Roof, an unemployed high school dropout, then fled the church. He was arrested the following day in North Carolina after being spotted by a motorist who alerted police.

A magistrate judge on Friday set bail at $1 million dollars on the gun charge but said he did not have the authority to set bail for the murder charges, saying that would have to be done by a state Circuit Court.

At the bond hearing, members of the victims’ families addressed Roof directly. One by one they stared into Roof’s face on the other side of a video screen, and poured out their hearts.

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders, killed while trying to save his aunt.

“You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know… Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.”

Many in the city’s faith community have called for the faithful to be even more so in the wake of the tragedy.

“These were devout Christians and they were faithful. Our scriptures and our faith teach us that this was not the end for them. So either we believe that or we don’t, we cannot live in two worlds,” Rivers said. “Liberation came to them Wednesday about 9 o’clock and they became free, now the pain is those of us left behind have to deal with what it did to our hearts, our psyche we have to work that out.”

Pastor Stephen Singleton, pastor at Grace Heritage Ministries in Columbia who served as pastor at Mother Emanuel immediately before Pinckney, said Pinckney was not just a father to his children but a father figure to his flock and more broadly in Charleston’s black community.

“His family lost what a lot of families need. They lost an African-American father who lived up to the ideals of his character, his faith,” Singleton said. “He was needed as a role model not only for his daughters but for his community. His family can take pride in the fact that  not only was he a good father but he was a good example for everyone.”

“I’m going to be thinking about Sen. Pinckney’s family when I’m with my family in church tomorrow.”
State Sen. Thomas McElveen
Pinckney, tall, with deep brown skin and a baritone voice that many said was as measured as it was heavy, was just 41 years old. When he first was elected to the South Carolina General Assembly in 1996 he was just 23 years old, the youngest African-American ever elected to the state legislature.

Three years later he married his wife, Jennifer, whom he’d met while attending Allen University. In 2010 he took over as pastor at Mother Emanuel, a historic black church that has played a central role in the fight for black liberation and civil rights from before the civil war into the 21st Century.

State Sen. Thomas McElveen, who represents Sumter, recalled Pinckney as a force beyond his years.

“This man was a legend in the General Assembly. He’d been there better part of two decades and he had that air of respect about him. When I spoke to him it was always ‘how is your family, how is your baby girl, how are things back in Sumter,” McElveen said. “He always knew more about me than I knew about him because he was always more interested in asking about you than talking about himself.”

“I’m going to be thinking about Sen. Pinckney’s family when I’m with my family in church tomorrow,” McElveen added. “It would have never been a good time to lose him but I’m sure it’s going to make it even more difficult for his family with it happening so close to Father’s day. I’m going squeeze my wife and my daughter a little tighter tomorrow and I’m going to be thinking about my friend’s family.” 

Back at Rev. Rivers Charity Missionary Baptist Church on Saturday, Rivers said getting through the first Father’s day without their father will be the beginning of a long road for Pinckney’s family, one that the entire community must walk along with them. There is still a funeral to plan and mourning to get from beneath.

Rivers said many have been asking him about funeral arrangements, about the families of the victims and about how the congregation is doing in light of the tragic loss of their pastor and other church leaders.

“The person who would be able to answer those things was killed as well, the pastor. The person who would be counseling those families in the loss of their loved one, he got killed too. The person who would organize the funerals and preach the funerals, he got killed,” Rivers said. “A father was taken from young children, a wife is beside herself in grief and now the community must rally to do what we can to help them through this impossible time.”

Charleston Church Shooting, Gun Violence and South Carolina

Father's Day in Charleston: 'Holy City' copes with horrific tragedy

Updated