Families critical of Goff

The Rev. Cress Darwin greets shooting survivor Felicia Sanders at Second Presbyterian Church three months after the shooting. Sanders and fellow survivor Polly Sheppard wanted to take a picture inside Emanuel’s sanctuary that day but were not allowed by church leaders. They took a photograph inside Darwin’s church instead. Grace Beahm/Staff

A united front of those who lost loved ones in the Emanuel AME Church shooting has come forward to denounce their former interim pastor for his treatment of them — and to protest his bid to become bishop.

When the AME Church’s general conference votes Monday for new bishops, the Rev. Norvel Goff will stand among 30 candidates one year after the racially motivated killings thrust him onto an international stage. Voting for six seats begins Monday in Philadelphia during the denomination’s meeting, held every four years.

Heading into that vote, the victims’ families said they want people to know that while the nation focused on their words of forgiveness, their pastor ignored their spiritual wounds.

Immediate family members of six victims told The Post and Courier Friday that once the high-profile funerals ended, Goff never called or visited them to pray or provide religious counseling even as he held memorials and other public events for the “Emanuel Nine.” Several said they contacted Goff repeatedly, but he didn’t respond. Nor did he send one of the three dozen clergy he supervised. Other victims’ relatives agreed but didn’t want to say so publicly.

“They say you’re family, but they didn’t treat us like family. ‘What y’all need? What y’all want? What can we do to assist you?’” said Nadine Collier, whose mother died in the shooting. “I didn’t get that.”

Goff was serving as a presiding elder when a gunman walked into Emanuel’s Bible study and killed nine people, including most of its ministerial staff. Bishop Richard Franklin Norris then appointed Goff interim pastor of the historic church.

The victims’ loved ones said they were dismayed to learn Goff was now running for bishop with Norris’ support.

After Tyrone Sanders’ son died in the shooting, Goff visited to discuss funeral plans. But he never showed up after that to check on Sanders and his wife, who survived the massacre by playing dead with their 11-year-old granddaughter.

“I haven’t seen him,” Sanders said. “But Lindsey Graham called me. Tim Scott called me. Joe Biden called me.”

Goff had no response to the criticism. Emanuel’s attorney, Wilbur Johnson, said Goff and the church “will not comment further on these matters.”

None of the five who survived the shooting regularly attend Emanuel AME anymore. Neither do many of the victims’ closest loved ones, including Collier, the first to utter words of forgiveness at killer Dylann Roof’s bond hearing.

Collier, a longtime Emanuel member, used to sing in the choir. But these days, she goes to a church in North Charleston and sees Emanuel leaders as benefiting on the backs of those who died.

“Now it’s like a show to me,” Collier said.

Survivor Felicia Sanders didn’t find spiritual care at her lifelong church after the shooting. She turned to nearby Second Presbyterian, where the Rev. Cress Darwin counseled her about God’s work amid tragedy.

Fellow survivor Polly Sheppard found a spiritual welcome mat at Mount Zion AME, led by the Rev. Kylon Middleton, a close friend of Emanuel’s slain pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

His widow, Jennifer Pinckney, the other adult survivor, doesn’t live in Charleston and rarely attends Emanuel. Her attorney has voiced repeated frustrations with Goff’s handling of donations that flowed into the church after the shooting.

Bethane Middleton-Brown, who lost her sister in the shooting, said she became disillusioned with Goff when he allowed the Rev. Jesse Jackson to speak at her sister’s funeral without the family’s permission. They had made it clear that they wished to avoid injecting politics into the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor’s funeral, but Goff went ahead and had the civil rights activist speak anyway, she said.

“I had no clue until I saw the man sitting in the pulpit. I just wanted this one day to be about the joy magnified that my sister brought to our lives,” said Middleton-Brown, a psychotherapist now caring for her sister’s four children. “To us, that was an invasion.”

After the funeral, Goff didn’t return her messages, “and I called a lot,” said Middleton-Brown, herself the daughter of an AME minister.

When asked about the families’ criticisms of Goff, Emanuel’s attorney reflected on the shooting’s recent anniversary and other horrific mass shootings, most recently in Dallas. He added that he wasn’t authorized to comment further.

“Now is the time for unity and healing. The church will continue to pray for, lift up and minister as it can to all those who continue to be affected, physically and spiritually, by acts of violence and other societal ills,” Johnson said.

But the grieving families said the fractured relationships Goff left between them and Emanuel has made healing so much harder. Worse, Goff and Bishop Norris haven’t seemed to realize it — or care, they said.

Three months after the shooting, survivors Sanders and Sheppard shared their story publicly for the first time with The Post and Courier. They wanted to take a photograph for the article in Emanuel’s sanctuary where they’d worshipped countless times.

The sanctuary was empty. They didn’t think they needed an appointment. They never needed one before.

But Maxine Smith, who handled Emanuel’s public relations after the shooting, couldn’t reach Goff for approval and wouldn’t let them in.

Both were highly active at Emanuel before the shooting. Sanders was a sixth-generation Emanuel member who served as an usher. Sheppard was a church trustee, a post that oversees church property.

How could an interim pastor, who’d been there for only a few months, keep them out?

Sanders sobbed as she stood outside, near the room where her son and aunt died. The gothic white church towered above, its front doors locked. “I’ve lost my son, and now I’m losing my church,” she cried.

Eventually, the two survivors walked to Second Presbyterian, where Darwin invited them in.

Sanders said she had scheduled a meeting with Goff before that day, but he didn’t show up. She tried twice more after, but he didn’t show up then either, she and her husband said.

Tyrone Sanders confronted Goff when the interim pastor held a press conference last fall. He asked Goff and a roomful of pastors under his supervision why none had come to his home. Sanders’ son and aunt had died, and his wife and granddaughter had witnessed the carnage. He figured somebody would reach out. But nobody had.

“Within 100 days, we sort of looked for somebody in the AME circuit to come and pray with us, and we haven’t seen one yet,” Sanders said.

Goff walked over and took the microphone.

“I would suggest that even when we have attempted to reach out to some, including that family, the coordination has not been there in terms of either coming to church or extending a welcome to come back and be a part of the activities of the church,” Goff said. “Next question.”

Yet, just driving by the church was traumatizing for the survivors, much less jumping back into activities.

“You can’t treat my family any worse than he has,” Tyrone Sanders said. He said he doubted Goff or Norris would even recognize most survivors or victims’ close relatives.

At the AME Church’s anniversary memorial service at TD Arena three weeks ago, Goff recalled the church’s response to the shooting: “We were able to give leadership to this community, the state, the nation and, yes, the world.”

Norris praised the families and asked the survivors to stand. Before an audience of 2,000, he called their names.

People peered around.

Norris apparently didn’t realize that none of the survivors were there.

AME bishops are elected by a majority vote of the church’s general conference. Up to six bishop seats are open this year with 30 candidates running, including four from South Carolina, said Jeffery Cooper, general secretary of the AME Church.

This state will get a new bishop regardless of who’s elected. Norris, whose district spans South Carolina, is retiring. He’s strongly backed Goff’s bid and often applauds his leadership.

If Goff isn’t elected on Monday, he will remain presiding elder. If he gets the promotion, he could be appointed to any district.

When Goff re-opened the church four days after the shooting, the Yale University School of Divinity graduate delivered an impassioned sermon to a packed crowd. He shared a stage with President Barack Obama at Pinckney’s funeral. He was widely praised for his preaching skills, and Gov. Nikki Haley gave him the Order of the Palmetto.

She reiterated her support of Goff during the TD Arena anniversary service. Watching him lead the funerals “was an amazing thing,” she said.

In the months after the shooting, people across the globe sent donations and words of support to the families and survivors. But most didn’t know the people impacted or where they lived.

So they mailed letters to the church.

Relatives and survivors often received that mail — addressed to them but sent to the church — already opened. Some were marked “empty.”

Arthur Hurd, whose wife died in the massacre, has said that shortly after the shooting, he watched three women sort bags of incoming mail in the church’s fellowship hall just outside Goff’s office. They opened letters and removed cash, stacking it in one pile and placing checks in another. Letters and cards went into a third pile. He saw no accounting of the donations.

Just over a month ago, the families received large envelopes of mail that had been sent to them at the church’s address last fall. The envelopes held dozens of letters addressed to them that the church had withheld. About one-third to half had been opened, they estimated.

Emanuel leaders had kept the mail for eight months while a lawsuit that Hurd filed seeking transparency with the donations was pending. When it was dismissed, the church forwarded the letters.

“While the legal matter was pending, the church also refrained from distributing various pieces of communications mailed or delivered to the Church, which appeared to be intended for individuals and families,” a letter from attorney Johnson read.

The move infuriated the families: What right did church leaders have to keep their mail?

Sheppard’s pack included a note written seven months earlier by Hillary Clinton. Another contained a $100 check from a Massachusetts couple dated Oct. 20. Former South Carolina first lady Jenny Sanford wrote yet another. “Remember through the storm you do not walk alone. Nor have you been forgotten. Our Lord has already given you all you need to survive,” Sanford handwrote in September.

Daniel Simmons Jr., whose father died in the shooting, felt violated receiving opened mail.

“You’re talking about a nation giving a love offering and passing it to through the church because they don’t know who is the next of kin,” he said. “The letters were addressed to me.”

When church leaders kept more of the donations than they gave nine families and five survivors, hurt swelled again.

In May, Emanuel leaders distributed $3.3 million in donations — $1.5 million to split among the families and survivors and $1.8 million for the church’s building maintenance, an endowment, a memorial and scholarships.

No amount of money will bring back his father, a retired AME pastor and Purple Heart recipient. “But it’s unfair that the families received a smaller portion,” Simmons said.

During his seven months at Emanuel, questions about Goff’s oversight of the donations persisted.

Among the first to raise concerns was Althea Latham, Pinckney’s secretary who said she questioned accounting for the money early on.

“This is just too much money coming in here,” Latham recalled telling church staff. “We need to bring somebody in to keep track of it.”

On Aug. 10, she received a letter ending her employment at the church. Goff has declined to discuss her departure, saying he cannot comment on personnel issues.

Two months later, The Post and Courier detailed accusations of poor financial oversight that had followed Goff from New York to Columbia to Charleston. Goff strongly denied wrongdoing and sued 18 of his former parishioners in Columbia, including three octogenarians, for defamation shortly after.

“We followed the law,” Goff said. “Every church I have pastored was left in better condition than I found it.”

The shooting victims’ families want Emanuel leaders to allow for an outside audit of all the church’s finances since the shooting because church financial records aren’t public information. Parishioners at Goff’s previous church in Columbia, Reid Chapel, have been trying for years to gain access to their church’s financial documents to see how Goff left them to repay $558,000 in mortgage debt and tax liens amassed during his tenure there.

Hurd said Goff’s lack of outreach or transparency with the Emanuel donations left him questioning his faith.

“If he could have only had a millimeter of sympathy, empathy and compassion, a half a millimeter of a true religious calling, imagine the magic he could have truly created,” Hurd said. “One can only wonder now.”

Reach Jennifer Hawes at (843) 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.