UPDATED: June 22, 2015 7:53 a.m.
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 same hospitality that allowed the suspected gunman to be welcomed into a Bible study for about an hour before he allegedly stood up, made racially offensive remarks and opened fire in the church known as “Mother Emanuel” because it is one of the oldest black congregations in the South.
“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 worshippers.
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, thousands of people gathered on either side of the city’s iconic Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge and marched across in a showing of solidarity and healing. Underneath the more than 2-mile span with towering cable supports, dozens of boats gathered and blew their air horns in support, while cars honked as they passed on the bridge.
When the marchers from the two sides met near the middle, they cheered, clapped and broke into songs including “This Little Light of Mine.”
Juliett Marsh, a 56-year-old from Summerville, described the walk through humid air and temperatures in the 90s as tough but “exhilarating.”
“It feels great,” she said. “There’s so much love out here.”
Before the march, Shulonda Powell said she drove 45 miles from McClellanville to participate because she wanted to show solidarity with the victims.
“I grew up in the AME church, so everyone is family,” she said. “I want people to learn from this experience and see everyone coming together.”
The bridge is named after a former state lawmaker and 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.
Less than 2 miles from the church, someone vandalized a Confederate monument, spray-painting “Black Lives Matter” on the statue. City workers used a tarp to cover up the graffiti, police said.
Photos on local news websites from before the tarp was put up showed the graffiti in bright red paint, along with the message “This is the problem. # RACIST.”
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 killings.
“But at least it lets the Charleston church know that Christians across the country are thinking about them,” she said.
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 going to get better. I know it’s going to take time, day by day.”
As a further sign of resilience, the church’s 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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