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Charleston, S.C. — Vice President Joe Biden worshipped and spoke at the Sunday service of the historic African-American church where nine people were gunned down during Bible study earlier this month.

The vice president’s surprise appearance came on the second Sunday the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church held regular services following the June 17 shooting. Police contend the attack was racially motived and have charged a 21-year-old white man with the killings.

Biden said he’d visited Emanuel before and knew the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the church who was among those killed.

“We came back because my family and I wanted to show solidarity with the families and with the church,” said Biden, wearing a purple tie, a traditional color of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Biden, a Catholic, showed the congregation the rosary beads he wore around his wrist and spoke about the feeling of loss within his own life.

The vice president’s son, Beau, died late last month of brain cancer. Beau Biden narrowly avoided death as a young boy in a 1972 car crash that killed Joe Biden’s first wife and his daughter.

“The reason I came was to draw strength from all of you,” Biden said. “I wish I could say something that would ease the pain.”

Biden received a standing ovation during the 2 ½-hour service after reading a selection of scripture. He later joined the congregation in holding hands and singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

The church, founded by freed slaves in the early 19th Century, was filled with worshippers of different races. Some in the congregation wore minister’s robes and had come to worship from nearby churches. Four men wore traditional turbans of the Sikh faith. Groups from Georgia and New York presented donations to the church.

When the time came to recognize guests, about half the church stood up. Instead of individual introductions, the Rev. Norvel Goff Sr. said a loud “amen” would suffice.

“If you can’t be safe anywhere you ought to be safe in a church,” Goff said. “But I have good news this morning, we are still safe.”

The Sunday morning service came hours before the church held another funeral for the shooting victims, DePayne Middelton-Doctor. The 49-year-old pastor and mother of four decided in January to return to her childhood roots and attend Emanuel AME Church after years attending a Baptist church.

Her slaying and the deaths of eight others have been blamed on Dylann Storm Roof, who was shown in photos posing with a Confederate battle flag and burning the U.S. flag. That prompted a drive by politicians in South Carolina and other Southern states to remove from public display the flag that critics describe as honoring a rebel movement that sought to defend slavery.

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