Emanuel AME Church members will seek God, prayer and support Sunday at their historic black church just days after a white man was accused of a devastating attack that left their senior pastor and most of their ministerial leadership dead, their hallowed space violated.
Services will be held at 9:30 a.m. in the Calhoun Street building.
Charleston police gave church members clearance Saturday to return to their space, several members said. A group then met in the ground-level fellowship room where those killed had gathered to discuss the Gospel of Mark.
Harold Washington said it was an emotional moment.
“They did a good job cleaning it up. There were a few bullet holes around, but ... they cut them out so you don’t see the actual holes,” he said.
Many parishioners are eager to return to their church home. But others aren’t, not with death and horror still so fresh. They will fan out into the area’s other houses of worship to seek much-needed support.
“Some people I talk to don’t want to be there,” said Willi Glee, an active longtime member. “Others want to go. It’s part of the healing process.”
Rose Mary Singleton has been at Emanuel AME since she was 6 years old. She is now 62. Ethel Lance, among those killed, was her aunt, a sexton who loved to be in the mix of church events and hold the doors open for services.
When Singleton returns one day, her aunt no longer will greet her. She is unsure when she will be able to face that.
“For me, it will be very hard to walk into that church,” Singleton said. “You want to go back, but your heart tells you it will be so difficult.”
Distraught Saturday over the losses, she was weighing whether to attend her mother’s church, Wesley United Methodist, which she often has visited, or to return to her worship home.
“I love my church,” Singleton said. “I love the people there. I grew up on all those people. It’s just heart-wrenching.”
She remembered watching the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, who was licensed to preach about 90 minutes before she died Wednesday, give her trial sermon a month ago.
“She was dynamite. You would have thought she was the minister of the church. I was like, ‘wow!’ ” Singleton recalled. She had looked forward to hearing more.
Doctor and the Rev. Myra Thompson, also licensed that night, won’t preach at Emanuel again. Neither will head pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Their seats will sit empty, their earthly voices from the pulpit silenced.
On Wednesday evening, the area’s presiding elder welcomed three people into the AME Church’s ministerial arms — two for the first time and Thompson with a renewed license. Two died shortly after, gunned down at a Bible study reportedly by a young man with racist ideas and a hate-filled heart.
The third of those licensed that night, the Rev. Brenda Nelson, left after a business meeting, a seemingly innocuous decision that left her alive to worship this weekend. She and the Rev. Michelle Frayer are the church’s remaining living pastors, Glee said.
The Rev. Daniel Simmons, a 74-year-old retired AME minister who helped lead Bible studies and other duties, was killed that night reportedly trying to protect Pinckney, a 41-year-old father of two and state Democratic senator.
“It was just so senseless,” church member and historian Liz Alston said. “This church has been through so much.”
Bishop Richard Norris, who is recovering from major surgery, ultimately will assign a new pastor to lead Emanuel.
Until police gave members permission to return to their worship space, the Rev. Charles Watkins, pastor of Morris Brown AME, had offered his church space to the mourning parishioners.
However, many wanted to go home. “That was their prayer,” Watkins said.
Throughout their histories, black residents often have forged spiritual ties to more than one church. Common heritages rooted in fights against racism have united them in ways that white churches aren’t bound.
That is especially true downtown among historic heavyweights Morris Brown AME, Morris Street Baptist and, of course, Emanuel AME. The latter is known among many as Mother Emanuel, a nod to her matriarchal status in the Holy City.
“They are kind of like mother and daughter churches,” said the Rev. Joe Darby, presiding elder of the AME Church’s Beaufort District and former pastor at Morris Brown AME, which was born when Mother Emanuel grew too large for its space.
The faithful promise to continue welcoming all comers despite one visitor who so ruthlessly betrayed their open arms of trust.
“That is part of Emanuel,” Singleton said. “When we have people come in, we treat them like one of us.”
And that will not change, even after so much else has for them all.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.