In a remarkable display of joy, sorrow and trust, worshippers at Emanuel AME Church on Sunday morning honored slain parishioners by celebrating the power of faith and community.
It was the first service in the church since authorities said Dylann Roof, 21, an avowed white supremacist, gunned down nine people gathered for Bible study on Wednesday, including Mother Emanuel’s lead pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
The service drew more than 1,000 people to the Calhoun Street sanctuary, though the building could accommodate only about 800. The street in front of the church, closed by police, became for the morning a sacred space where people enduring another hot Charleston day added their voices to the singing inside and joined hands in prayer in a grand show of solidarity.
When a woman sang “Jesus Said You Can Lean on Me,” joined by a young trumpet player and the church choir, the building shook. Worshippers clapped and danced and cried. It was hard to ignore the message: strength comes in numbers and healing begins in the cradle of community.
The first pew was occupied by Gov. Nikki Haley and her family, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, a member of Mother Emanuel, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters and others showing support for Mother Emanuel.
Pinckney’s seat on the altar was draped with a black robe. In the choir loft, the robe of Susie Jackson, an 87-year-old victim of the shooting, was laid in her usual seat.
The service began with a hymn followed by shouts of “Hallelujah!” and bursts of applause. A sense of spiritual relief was tangible in the sweltering air. Hand-held fans fluttered everywhere. Volunteers with the Red Cross distributed bottles of water.
The Rev. Norvell Goff, presiding elder of the AME Church’s Edisto District, which includes Mother Emanuel, stepped into the pulpit.
“This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice,” he said, and everyone was on their feet, applauding again.
Security at the church was tight, with police officers directing movements and stationing themselves inside and outside the building. The heat and bomb-sniffing dog scrutinizing the perimeter of the church did nothing to dampen the high spirits.
“Sometimes when you quit fanning, there’s a slight breeze,” Goff said at one point. “I’m reminded that there’s a hotter place than this.”
He did not avoid speaking about the Wednesday night shooting, asking on this Father’s Day that all should remember that nine families require love and support. He celebrated the way Charleston has come together, and he offered thanks to civic leaders present and to the members of law enforcement who have shown the church great respect.
“A lot of people expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot,” Goff said. “Well, they just don’t know us.”
He called on those in attendance to remain vigilant against bigotry and hold elected officials accountable.
“The blood of the ‘Mother Emmanuel 9’ requires us to work until not only justice (is served) in this case, but for those who are still living in the margin of life, those who are less fortunate than ourselves, that we stay on the battlefield until there is no more fight to be fought,” he said. “And for that we say thank you.”
Worshippers filling the pews included locals and visitors, black and white. Julie Styles, 44, brought two of her daughters — Katelyn, 19, and Madison, 18 — from the Greenville area to join a Saturday prayer vigil organized by the Evangelical Church Alliance and National Clergy Council and to attend the service.
“We felt like this was one of those compelling moments when you need to make a stand,” Styles said.
The family includes six children, one of whom is black, and they often speak together about racism and the need to work for a better world, she said.
“We’ve got to have a change in our culture, in our nation,” Styles said, adding that she hopes the younger generation will succeed in turning the ship.
Eddie Koardell Dennis, 20, a student at Trident Technical College, and Juliet Shine, 20, a student at Winthrop University, said they have appreciated the public outpouring of support in the aftermath of the killings.
“It feels better to see all ethnicities come together, and to come peacefully,” Dennis said.
Evelyn Sinkler has been a member of Mother Emanuel her entire life, following in the footsteps of many family members. She said the service was very uplifting.
“We came here to lay down a burden, and I think the pastor has done a great job helping us,” Sinkler said. “I didn’t think I would make it, but I made it through.”
Another lifelong member, Sherrell Nelson, said the show of support at the church was overwhelming and that the service was of great comfort.
“We are bent but not broken, and we will get through this,” she said of her congregation.
Antonia Johnson and Harry Lesgold were visiting from Columbus, Ohio, when the shooting occurred.
“Everybody has been really welcoming,” Johnson said. “It’s really wonderful to see the people who are supporting the church, the victims and their families.”
For two women sitting together, the service gave them the chance to share in the community’s grief — and to meet one another.
Nancy Elliott of Mount Pleasant is white; Shirley Martin of Goose Creek is black. Both spoke of the sense of belonging that is heightened by tragedy, the strength found in diversity and the need for more gatherings in order to learn from one another.
“We’re not going to let hate win,” Elliott said.
“We need more opportunities for people to get to know people,” Martin added. “We have to do more of this — for good reasons.”
On his way to the service, Riley paused to meet with reporters and condemn the actions of the shooter.
“If that guy thought in his tortured mind that he was going to divide the races, it had the opposite effect,” Riley said.
In the pulpit, Goff spoke of Jesus’ crucifixion and the hopelessness it likely provoked, praising God for his knowing goodness.
“On that day, the devil thought it was over,” he said. “But he didn’t know You were in charge!”
But Goff, part of a church tradition that always has confronted social injustice and provided a safe haven for blacks to express themselves, said that following Jesus required more than prayer and devotion. It required action in the world.
“The only way for evil to triumph is for good folk to sit down and do nothing,” he said.
Melissa Boughton and Prentiss Findlay contributed to this report. Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.