Shootings' emotional burden looms over Sunday sermons
Charleston, S.C. — Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church opened its tall, wooden doors to the world Sunday, embracing strangers who walked in from the street or tuned in from home for the first worship service since a white gunman was accused of killing nine black church members.
It was that similar sort of Southern hospitality that allowed the suspected gunman to be welcomed in on Wednesday and pray with a Bible study group for about an hour before he allegedly stood up, made racially offensive remarks and opened fire.
"I was so pleased when authorities told us you can go back into 'Mother Emanuel' to worship," said the Rev. Norvel Goff, a presiding elder of the 7th District AME Church in South Carolina, before adding a note of defiance to a service sprinkled with themes of love, recovery and healing.
"Some folks might need some more time in order to walk in. But for those of us who are here this morning … because the doors of Mother Emanuel are open on this Sunday, it sends a message to every demon in hell and on earth."
The church's air conditioning did little to fight the heat of extra bodies in the sanctuary. There was fervent singing and shouting, so much so that many congregants waved small fans in front of their faces.
Despite the heaviness in the air, many stood — some holding small children — to shout their praises or raise their hands toward the church's vaulted ceiling. For added security, police officers stood watch over the worshippers at the church known as "Mother Emanuel" because it is one of the oldest black congregations in the South.
Some congregation members stood to applaud when Goff thanked law enforcement for their response to the shooting.
Goff was appointed to lead the historic Charleston church after Emanuel's senior pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was fatally shot during the massacre. A black sheet was draped over Pinckney's usual chair, which sat empty. At least one parishioner kneeled down in front of it and prayed.
Pinckney was also a state senator and married father of two children. Goff acknowledged Father's Day and said: "The only way evil can triumph is for good folks to sit down and do nothing."
As Emanuel's congregation belted out a gospel hymn, church bells rang throughout the "Holy City" — nicknamed because of the numerous churches here. Later Sunday, people were expected to gather on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge to join hands in solidarity.
The bridge's namesake is a former state lawmaker and a vocal Confederate flag supporter. The slayings have renewed calls for the flag to be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, in part because photographs of Roof in a purported manifesto showed him holding Confederate flags. The 2,500-word manifesto also contained hate-filled writings.
Around the country, pastors asked people to pray for Charleston, and the tragedy resonated far beyond urban areas. Congregants at a small church in rural north-central Pennsylvania signed a condolence card to send to Emanuel. The Rev. Nancy Light Hardy of St. James United Church of Christ said she debated buying the card, which seemed "pitiful and lame" when set against the "inconceivable" killings.
"But at least it lets the Charleston church know that Christians across the country are thinking about them," she said.
Despite grim circumstances Emanuel faced, the welcoming spirit Roof exploited before the shooting was still alive.
Gail Lincoln said she typically attends another AME church nearby, but felt compelled to visit Emanuel this week.
"Through all of this, God is still our refuge," Lincoln said. "I'm still heartbroken but it's gonna get better. I know it's gonna take time, day by day."
As a further sign of resilience, Wednesday night Bible study is expected to continue as normal next week, said Emanuel member Harold Washington, 75.
"We didn't change a thing," he said.
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