Emanuel AME Church already was among South Carolina’s most well-known churches long before someone entered the ground floor and shot its pastor and eight others to death during a June 17 Bible study.
But the unspeakable crime —one that led to an outpouring of support and unity from across the nation — has changed the church in ways that are still playing out.
In coming months, the church’s leaders, members and supporters are expected to discuss not only how to memorialize the nine victims on the site but also what repair work is needed. They’ll need to decide how to conduct the repairs to the sanctuary and ground floor, where the crime occurred, while also tending to the spiritual needs of the church.
“Our focus is — as it has been since June 17 — to make sure those families and their concerns, their immediate needs — monetary, spiritual and emotional — are met,” said the Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff, Emanuel’s interim pastor.
“This is an ongoing process. We haven’t been here before. Where we lost nine of our members to a horrific, evil act. We have not been there.”
The church expects to finish one major construction project later this summer, the addition of an elevator off the eastern facade. Scaffolding currently rings the stuccoed addition.
When the project is done, for the first time, elderly and disabled parishioners will be able to get to the sanctuary without climbing stairs. Many no longer will have to watch from a closed-circuit television feed on the ground floor.
“That will be a good day,” said Liz Alston, a longtime member who is the church’s historian.
Meanwhile, Goff said in addition to the elevator, the vision of the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney was to make other improvements to the church’s physical plant, and these improvements may support new programs.
“Moving forward, my goals over the next months will include putting an administrative team in place to handle the volume of inquiries and visitors received by Mother Emanuel, assessing and expanding the security system and executing a complete renovation of the first floor,” he said.
The church also has received a state grant and is working with Bennett Engineering to analyze the structural condition of its historic 1891 building, which has some termite damage and other issues common among historic buildings.
Goff said this ongoing preservation and maintenance was in the works before June 17 and is an ongoing process.
“The church is doing just fine, and we’re going to continue to do the work that is necessary on an ongoing basis. I think our needs are consistent with a facility of this age, and when you’re that mature in years, there’s always something that one must do.”
Emanuel member and Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said most of the church property is in good shape. “Now is time to pay attention to the sanctuary so we can preserve it for another 200 years,” he said. “Nothing is insurmountable, but it is going to cost.”
Another aspect the church will grapple with is a memorial to the nine lives lost.
Mayor Joe Riley said he thinks such a memorial is “essential” and should occur “obviously with the input and leadership from the church and the family members of those who perished, and the community.”
Goff said he has given only brief thought to that, but added, “At some point in time, I’m quite sure I’ll initiate conversations not only with Mother Emanuel’s officers and members but also to get input from Mayor Riley and others who have expressed similar kinds of concerns to have a lasting memorial to those nine.”
It’s unclear how that process might unfold, but Goff said, “I think it’s important to take an inclusive view of all of those who have expressed interest. It will happen.”
Meanwhile, the church is gathering up the many mementos, memorials and other items that well-wishers have left outside its stairs at 110 Calhoun St.
Riley said efforts to create a memorial at the church “shouldn’t languish,” and the city’s planned International African American Museum also will reflect the crime in the larger context of the role of the black church.
“Thirty years from now, 50 years from now, it’s important that this tragic event be presented as a very sad, heartbreaking part of Charleston’s history,” he said.
Alston, whose office at the church is full of cardboard boxes containing items that well-wishers have donated to the families of the nine, said this summer’s events — the horrific crime and the outpouring of faith and compassion — rank up there with the most momentous moments in the church’s history, such as Denmark Vesey’s planned slave uprising and the church’s subsequent closure in 1834.
Preserving the church — and growing its congregation and expanding its mission — will be its own kind of tribute.
“I still am feeling the loss of the nine,” Alston said, “but then we have a lot of work to do. I don’t want their deaths to be in vain. I hope we can move ahead with the church so they too will be proud of what we’re doing.”
Goff said the church will continue to offer counseling services at off-site locations with the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center and other possible partners.
“First and foremost, we ask the people of the city, state and nation to continue praying for us, especially the children, senior citizens and family members of the victims,” he said. “We all need time to heal.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.