Emanuel AME, symbol of faith, liberty, has endured Church at heart of tragedy a place of prayer steeped in history

A Charleston police officer places flowers in front of the Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street on Thursday.

Beyond the squad cars blocking roads and news trucks jamming sidewalks Thursday, Emanuel AME Church sat in the heart of historic Charleston, a sentry of faith roped off by police tape to all who were watching her.

A day earlier, as it has been for two centuries, it was a hub of friends gathering in prayer and community.

Now it stood alone, cordoned off from the bustle, silent in the day’s stifling heat after a mass shooting of its faithful the night before.

“It is heart-rending,” said Liz Alston, Emanuel’s church historian and an active member.

The historic Charleston congregation was born in 1816, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South. It remains the oldest south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Like many other black churches, it became a defender of freedom to worship — and much, much more.

“Emanuel has always been a focal point of social activity, religious activity, because churches were the only place in antebellum times where black people could assume leadership,” Alston said.

One of its founding members was Denmark Vesey.

Almost to the day 193 years ago, Vesey plotted a slave rebellion from the very church where so much blood spilled Wednesday when a band of worshippers gathered in the basement to study God’s word.

Vesey’s rebellion might have charted a new course for the lives of enslaved black residents, had someone not tipped off authorities. But someone did. And the 1822 plot was discovered, bringing harsh reprisals to the area’s black residents.

Vesey, a former slave but then a free carpenter, died with 34 others by the hangman’s noose.

The ensuing investigation forced the church’s pastor, the Rev. Morris Brown, to flee north to Philadelphia, seat of the AME Church. Mother Emanuel was burned.

Yet church members rebuilt — at least until 1834, when black churches were outlawed out of fear of black residents organizing, said Peter Beck, a local church historian and professor of Christian studies at Charleston Southern University.

Emanuel AME members were driven underground to worship in secret for decades until the Civil War freed them all.

“We do believe in a formalized structure, so we went underground,” Alston said. “But we couldn’t sing and pray like we usually do.”

Then it rebuilt again.

In 1865, at the close of the Civil War, the congregation also adopted the name Emanuel. It means “God is with us.”

“When nobody was there, they had their community,” Beck said.

And they still do, amid so much horror and grief.

Yet enough has changed in the ensuing 150 years that the nation elected its first black president. Now he, too, is left to mourn.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama knew the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor who was among the dead.

“Mother Emanuel Church and its congregation have risen before — from flames, from an earthquake, from other dark times — to give hope to generations of Charlestonians,” Obama said in a televised addressed on Thursday.

Pinckney took the helm of Mother Emanuel in 2010.

That year, he told a Post and Courier reporter, “Loving God is never separate from loving our brothers and sisters. It’s always the same.”

So the church will rebuild again, for one another, this time with the question of how to resanctify a holy place that has witnessed such horror.

To this question, the Rev. Joe Darby paused Thursday. He was the longtime senior pastor of Emanuel AME’s daughter church, Morris Brown AME, born when the mother church got too large. Now Darby is presiding elder of the church’s Beaufort District. But he and others remain committed to rebuilding Emanuel.

“We’re going to have to do that,” Darby said. “The family cries, and the family moves on.”

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