Looking back, he sees how God used one horrific murder to help him pastor an entire church grieving nine killed within their own sacred walls.
In 2002, the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning was working on the staff of an AME Church in Maryland when a woman in his congregation went missing.
Paula Lynn Edwards was a lifelong member of his church. Manning knew her mother well. He knew her three young daughters well. As word spread of her disappearance, he feared for them, with them.
Then his senior pastor called. He needed Manning to minister directly to the terrified family, particularly the missing mother’s girls — who were 2, 5 and 15 — as they awaited news of her fate.
Manning was about the same age as the 34-year-old missing mother. His son was around the age of Edwards’ younger daughters. He’d never faced something of such emotional and spiritual enormity as he helped the family work with law enforcement and the media to find her.
Two days later, police found her, strangled and lifeless.
Manning helped plan a funeral as police arrested Edwards’ estranged boyfriend, a man with a history of domestic violence.
“There’s a nice place in hell for him,” a family member vented.
It was hard to disagree.
“We have to pray for him, as well,” the pastor said.
The woman paused. “You know, you’re absolutely correct.”
Twenty years later, Manning stepped into a new pulpit where he must minister after another tragedy. Again, he would embrace forgiveness and pray for a killer’s soul.
The phone call came on June 21, a Tuesday, around 11:30 a.m. Manning was in the parsonage of historic Bethel AME in Georgetown when Bishop Richard Franklin Norris’ voice rumbled over the line.
“Would you like to come serve at Mother Emanuel?” Norris said.
“Yes, bishop, it would be my honor to serve.”
In truth, he trembled under the weight of such responsibility and began to pray.
Not long after, a former pastor congratulated him on Facebook for his new appointment by noting Manning’s role in ministering to the slain woman’s family.
It made sense then.
“I believe that in all appointments, the Lord prepares you,” Manning said. “You can see the divine fingerprints, if you look.”
From Edwards’ family, he had learned that the intense pain from traumatic loss lasts much longer than many realize — and that people grapple with tragedies very differently.
He’d learned that a pastor must be patient.
Now a bow-tied, bespectacled father and husband, he brings those lessons to Emanuel AME Church.
“My plan is to help move the church forward, but moving it at such a pace that we don’t forget,” he said. “We never should forget. But we should be able to draw strength.”
He arrived at Emanuel a week ago amid 12 days of anniversary events to remember the shooting deaths of nine worshippers in its fellowship hall. He arrived at a church in turmoil.
After the shooting, Norris appointed as interim minister the district’s presiding elder, the Rev. Norvel Goff, whose seven-month tenure was marked by national applause but also disenchantment among survivors of the shooting and victims’ families who said he rebuffed their spiritual needs and lacked transparency. Many no longer attend the church.
Then, the church’s first permanent pastor since the shooting, the Rev. Betty Deas Clark, sought to bring more outreach to those families and survivors. Yet she missed the commemorative Bible study held almost one year after nine parishioners were killed. Instead she was in Orlando, Fla., praying with victims of the mass shooting that had taken place there days before.
The bishop suddenly moved her to Bethel AME 10 days ago without stating publicly why. Clark had been at the church only five months.
With the anniversary events passed, many members just want stability to heal.
They are a resilient lot. Over the past year, new members have come. Friendships have deepened. And Emanuel is forever changed.
“We are America’s church, and people want to see us,” said Maxine Smith, who has handled much of the church’s public relations since the shooting. “It’s a new time in the life of this church.”
Manning stepped into this milieu on June 23, two days after Norris called.
He’s known service of some kind his entire adult life. Manning joined the Army at 22, first in the reserves and then active duty, largely to help his family financially.
While stationed in South Korea, he noticed a beautiful young woman walking in the mess hall.
At first, he and Andretta were friends. A California native, she was stationed there, too. They learned that their fathers and a brother had the same names. Their parents both had divorced.
“We have so much in common that we have to get married,” he said.
“Are you asking me something?” she said.
They called their parents from South Korea to share the news.
After they returned to the states, married with their first baby, they packed a U-Haul and moved to Florence to be closer to his mother. He’d worked in intelligence and information technology, and he landed a job at Sonoco. Andretta became a teacher.
One day, his mother left the church they’d been attending. Manning didn’t feel God leading him down the same path.
He went to his pastor: “I’m tired of running.”
They prayed, and it became clear that God was calling him to the ministry.
He did his initial sermon with his pregnant wife and young daughter watching. His son was born a month later.
He served at several smaller churches before the bishop assigned Manning, a history major, to historic Bethel AME, the largest AME church in Georgetown.
Alma White, chairwoman of Bethel’s steward board, remembered how Manning also served as a chaplain to the city police department and helped at the local Family Justice Center for victims of violence.
“He’s an excellent spiritual leader,” White said. “He’s a people person and an anointed person who enjoys his calling.”
When Manning arrived, the church was holding a funeral. His new parishioners told him to sit down. They’d bring him a plate of food. He said no.
Manning got up, grabbed a tray and began serving food. Soon his staff joined in.
“We changed the paradigm just by our behavior. I think that’s important,” he said. “Sometime, somewhere we had forgotten we were there to serve.”
Last Sunday, his first before the congregation, Manning stepped to the microphone. From Emanuel’s raised pulpit, he asked the children present to meet him down in front.
Slowly they filed forward, a bit wary of the surprise request.
“I need to introduce myself to you all,” Manning said.
Speaking in soft and measured tones, he promised to learn their names, as well.
“Bishop Norris sent me to serve Mother Emanuel. The key is to serve,” he told the two or three dozen children gathered. “Jesus talked about this.”
Look at your shoes, he said.
One boy, among the youngest, wore sneakers. As he spoke, Manning paused to kneel before the child.
“Jesus said, ‘I have come to serve,’ ” Manning told his new congregation.
The people loved it. They burst out cheering as their new pastor slowly tied a little boy’s shoelaces.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 843-937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.