On Sunday, four days after Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man who told police he wanted “to start a race war,” gunned down the pastor and eight members, doors are set to be open at the prominent African-American church with a history of resilience.
“It never closed its doors before, but death is involved this time, and the leader is gone,” said Brandon Robinson, 26, a member of Emanuel AME’s sister church, Little Emanuel. “But this is the time we show the Lord we trust Him. You still have souls unaccounted for.”
On Saturday, Charleston police gave church leaders permission to open the church. Church leaders met in the basement, where they tried to cover bullet holes.
Many members looked forward to the church opening its doors. Others were still hesitant in the wake of the shooting that violated a sanctuary they hold sacred.
“How do you bring yourself to a place where tragedy struck?” Robinson asked. “There is an opened wound. Someone lost a brother, a husband, a father, a sister and auntie.”
Before sunrise Sunday, sextons — keepers of the church — will begin clearing a path amid hundreds of flower bouquets left on the church steps by mourners who came from across the country — black, white, Latino and Asian. Some mourners lit white votive candles and prayed. Others weaved long-stemmed red and pink roses at the church’s gate, as police stood guard.
People, shaken by the tragedy, stood looking up at the church’s white steeple and prayed.
“You have individuals across the country asking, ‘How could God allow something like this to happen?’” said the Rev. Branden Sweeper, 30, who was close friends with Emanuel’s pastor the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney. “Church is still the best place to be.”
Faith is tested by tragedy, said Robinson, a minister of music, a day after relatives of the shooting victims told the shooter during a bond hearing that they forgave him.
“You know these are true saints of God when you can stand in front of a person who did this, who killed your family members and say, ‘I forgive you,’ that is the real meaning of having the Holy Ghost,” Robinson said.
“I’m not saying people here are not crying and hurting,” Robinson said. “That is a Commandment — to forgive. That is in the by-laws of the church. When you go to God and repent, He throws it in the sea of forgiveness.”
“Mother Emanuel,” as members call the church founded in 1816, is one of the oldest and largest AME churches in the South. The white stucco church with towering steeples, wooden rafters and arched stained glass windows sits in downtown Charleston on Calhoun Street. The church was the site where in 1822, Denmark Vesey, a freed slave, planned one of the biggest slave insurrections in U.S. history.
“When authorities were made aware of his plot, Vesey and a number of his followers were executed,” according to the book, “African Methodism South Carolina.”
The church was burned down by white crowds. “And even more strict regulations were imposed on Charleston’s Black Churches,” the book said. By 1834, all black churches were closed by state law. Some members of the church joined white churches, “others continued the tradition of the African church by worshiping underground.” In 1865, the Emanuel AME resurfaced with 3,000 members to spread the Word of faith.
Hearing the Word was the subject of the Bible study Wednesday night, when the group of 12 church members, including the Rev. Pinckney, gathered in white folding chairs in the fellowship hall in the church basement.
Pinckney, 41, a talented minister who began preaching when he was 13, and was elected to the state House of Representatives at age 23 and later to the state Senate, led the Bible study.
The group included Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Daniel Simmons, 74, who were ordained ministers in the African Methodist Church. Also attending were: Cynthia Graham Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Myra Thompson, 59; Polly Sheppard, Felecia Sanders and her 5-year-old granddaughter.
As custom, the Bible study began with a hymn.
Police said Roof entered the church through its side door at 8:06 p.m., according to a Charleston County police affidavit.
Members welcomed him.
Members were often particularly delighted when a stranger attends Bible study.
“Our door swings on open hinges. The Bible says, ‘Come as you are.’ . . . They will take you as you are,” Robinson said. “As a pastor, there is great joy for an outsider to come to Bible study. Many people come on Sunday, but to come to Bible study? They were likely thinking, ‘Oh wow! And a white person!”
Roof, wearing a gray long sleeve shirt and a bowl style haircut, asked members to point out the minister, police said, then he sat near Pinckney.
The group began to study Mark 4: 16-20:
“And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness;“And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word’s sake, immediately they are offended.“And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word,“and the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches and the lusts of other things entering I, choke the word and it becometh unfruitful.“And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some and hundred.”
After nearly an hour of study, “the defendant stood up and with malice and aforethought pulled out a handgun and began shooting at the parishioners inside the hall, striking nine victims. All victims were hit multiple times. All victims died as a result of their injuries.”
Sanders, 57, fell to the floor, covering her granddaughter. “She pretended she was dead,” said a relative Cynthia Taylor, 64, a retired store manager who has been a member of Emanuel all her life. “He didn’t shoot her.”
But Taylor’s family’s matriarch Susie Jackson, 87, and cousin Tywanza Sanders, 26, died in the killing.
Police say that before Roof left the fellowship hall, “he stood over a witness to be named later and uttered a racially inflammatory statement to the witness.”
Roof told church member Polly Sheppard that he was going to allow her to live.
“I heard he said, ‘I’m going to let you live so you can tell the story,” said Harold Washington, 75, a former church trustee who retired from South Carolina electric and gas company.
Roof left the church, looking both ways before exiting the side door.
Still alive inside the church was Pinckney’s wife, Jennifer Pinckney, who, a church member said, had locked a church office door after she heard the shooting, placing a chair against the handle to protect their daughter.
The Rev. Norvell Goff, presiding elder of the Edisto District of the State Conference of the AME Church, spent much of Saturday visiting grieving church members.
At the home of Sheppard, the woman the shooter decided not to harm, cars lined the driveway and lawn. A man answered the door and said she was pretty shaken by the tragedy, and not able to talk about it.
At the home of Felecia Sanders, the grandmother who fell on her granddaughter “pretending to be dead,” cars lined the long driveway. A woman answered the door and said the family was dealing with an unspeakable tragedy.
Other church members were still trying to deal with shattered peace of a church many had belonged to all their lives, attending teas, serving buttered pound cake in the fellowship hall, singing in the church choir and reciting Easter speeches.
“Our church is still taped off,” said Taylor, a lifelong church member. “It is very sad.”
On Saturday afternoon, a decision was announced that the church would open.
“The decision came from down from the bishop,” said lifelong church member Clifford Jones, 55.
Jones stood in the shade of the church parking lot with William Seabrook, 66, a church deacon. Seabrook had taken off his hat as he entered the church through the side door. Both men were there to attend a meeting of church leaders.
“This is the same door the shooter went in,” Seabrook said, recalling that terrible night.
“Someone called me that night. They said, ‘Someone shot up your church.’ I thought they were playing,” Seabrook recalled. “I said, ‘No, not my church.’ I came down here in the wee hours of the morning. I was in shock.”
Seabrook said that the keepers of the church would arrive early Sunday morning to prepare for its opening for service. The presiding Elder Norvell Goff will preach.
“We will be here at 7 to clean up some of the flowers,” Seabrook said. “So people can walk in.”
Although the church is shaken by the tragedy, he said, members believe it will eventually heal.
“We will heal as a family,” said “We know each other and we will call each other.”