Emanuel survivors still wait for funds

Cynthia Graham Hurd, center, surrounded by three of her brothers in January after they had gathered at Emanuel AME to restart a tradition of meeting periodically for family communion. Her brothers ( from left), are Gilbert Moultrie, Melvin Graham Jr. and Robert Moultrie.

Three months after the June 17 massacre at Emanuel AME Church, victims' families and survivors of the tragedy still wait. And wait.

Those most traumatized by the nine deaths are waiting to hear when — and how — millions of dollars people have donated to them, both through a city of Charleston fund and the church, will be divided up.

In late August, a city official said attorneys would release a plan in the next “few weeks” detailing how they will parcel out $2.3 million collected through Charleston's Mother Emanuel Hope Fund.

That was almost a month ago.

As families and survivors wait, they struggle with the mounting stress of little closure. Tensions are building.

Cameron Wolfsen, a city spokeswoman, said a team working on the fund's distribution is “close to finalizing a plan” but wouldn't provide a time frame.

None of the victims' families and survivors reached by The Post and Courier said they have heard from Emanuel AME leaders regarding donations to them either.

Millions of dollars have flowed into the church since the shootings, some for the congregation as a whole and others for the victims' families and survivors. Three months later, it remains there.

State Sen. Gerald Malloy is an attorney for Jennifer Pinckney, widow of the church's slain pastor who hid in her husband's office with their 6-year-old daughter as the killer shot 77 bullets to kill nine people. Malloy has heard from city officials but not from the church.

“There's been no accountability, basically, as to money raised by the church,” Malloy said. “They have not accounted to us.”

Attorney Steve Schmutz, who represents relatives of shooting victims Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Graham Hurd and Myra Singleton Thompson, sent a letter to the church not long after the shooting. He asked for accountability in handling the donations.

“We haven't heard a word,” he said. “Now, my clients just shake their heads when Emanuel AME Church is mentioned.”

However, Wilbur Johnson, the church's attorney, said he is confident that donations are being handled properly and an accounting is forthcoming.

Shortly after Hurd died in her church's fellowship hall, someone sent her family a prayer shawl. Her brother, Melvin Graham Jr., gave it to their sister, who is undergoing chemotherapy while grieving.

Now Graham hears other items sent to the family sit at the church. Nobody calls him or Hurd's other siblings to get them.

“We're totally left out of the loop,” said Graham, who lives in Goose Creek and attends church there with his family.

No one from Emanuel AME or the city's Hope Fund has contacted Hurd's five siblings, he said.

Instead, Graham takes solace in scholarships set up in his librarian sister's name and that the library branch she ran will carry her name.

“Cynthia didn't have children,” Graham said. “But Cynthia has thousands of children now. She's going to live on long after I'm gone.”

Yet the pain of her loss still brings the 61-year-old to tears.

“I try to lean on my faith,” Graham said, choking up. “Then I ask myself, 'What would Cynthia want me to do?' She'd want me to be positive.”

Emanuel AME hired the auditing firm BDO to analyze its donations. That report, which is imminent, should help church officials determine how to divide the funds between their own ministry — dubbed the Moving Forward fund — and the people affected by the tragedy, Johnson said.

Complicating matters, some donors confused the city's Hope Fund with the church. Any of that money should be sent to the city, he said. Other donations were meant for specific individuals, and some were designated for the victims' families in general.

But Johnson said he understands that the length of time gone by has raised concerns.

“When you have a pastor who already has obligations as presiding elder who has been asked to be interim pastor, and you have a congregation that has suffered collectively a huge traumatic event, there are so many things that have to be attended to,” Johnson said. “I don't think it's a surprise that it has taken awhile for the church to get its arms around this.”

Some family members said they trust both the city and the church to come through.

Those include Dan Simmons Jr. His father, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., often took over when Pinckney couldn't preach on Sundays or during Wednesday Bible studies when the state senator was at the S.C. Statehouse in Columbia.

The younger Simmons trusts the church still has strong leadership.

“I have utmost confidence that all the funds will make it to the families,” Simmons said. “I think it just hasn't happened in a time frame the general public wants it to happen.”

Others devastated by the shootings aren't so confident.

After the district's presiding elder, the Rev. Norvel Goff, delivered a moving sermon on the first Sunday after the shooting, Steve Hurd walked to the pulpit and introduced himself to the man also serving as interim pastor.

Goff didn't take the time to talk, Hurd said, until someone prodded the pastor that the man seeking his attention was married to Cynthia Hurd, who died in the attack.

Since then, Hurd has chosen to have little contact with leaders of the church he grew up in. His confidence has been shaken during a time when Emanuel AME needs strong leadership, Hurd said. The experience also ignited his skepticism of how church officials will handle the donations.

“It's not about the money. I make enough money,” he said. “It's the principle. The church has something for the families, and there are families who actually need it. ... Just imagine the dark place they are in.”

Some are turning to other ways of preserving their loved ones' legacies rather than waiting any longer.

Kevin Singleton, whose mother Myra Singleton Thompson was killed, hasn't heard from either fund. Yet, from his Charlotte home, he has heard about rising tensions.

“It's going to pull the mask off a lot of people — spiritually and financially,” he said.

Meanwhile, he has applied to create a nonprofit called Passion to Forgive to raise scholarship money for women who get pregnant young so they can fulfill their college dreams.

And Jennifer Pinckney set up senatorpinckney.org to carry on her husband's work.

“We are thankful for the generosity of all, but are moving forward with our own initiatives,” Malloy said. “We are giving her a reason to move forward and take care of his legacy.”

At the first bond hearing after Dylann Roof was arrested and charged with nine murders, Nadine Collier stepped up to lay a path toward forgiveness.

“You took something very precious away from me,” sobbed Collier, whose 70-year-old mother, Ethel Lance, was killed. “I will never talk to her, ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul.”

Those words set a tone that an entire city would follow, one the nation would admire.

On Aug. 30, she went back to Emanuel AME for the first time since the funerals. It was her mother's birthday. Collier sat in the front row.

Her mother wasn't there.

But lots of strangers were.

“It wasn't the same. Everything was different. I didn't feel that warm welcome, that warm sensation, that happy-go-lucky sense I used to feel,” she recalled. Some old friends greeted her warmly, but others did not.

Goff didn't recognize her. Nor has he contacted her since the shootings to offer comfort, she said. But she sees him holding memorials and going to press conferences.

“To me, Emanuel AME Church has prospered from these nine victims,” Collier said. “It is debt-free from nine victims, and they don't care about the families. That's my opinion.”

Goff didn't respond to requests for comment.

Collier hasn't heard from church or city leaders about the donations either. Money won't bring back her mom anyway.

Now she goes to other churches on Sundays seeking a place she feels comfortable. She can't bear to walk into Emanuel AME and not see her mother there.

“I just want to go and hear the word and let God know where I am right now,” Collier said. “I'm holding onto Him right now.”

It's not just about money. Survivors of the shooting said their church hasn't provided the spiritual counseling they need either.

Earlier this month, two traumatized survivors of the shooting met at Emanuel AME to let a Post and Courier photographer take a portrait of them together for a story about their ordeals.

At that tragic Bible study, Felicia Sanders played dead with her 11-year-old granddaughter while a young man who joined them at Bible study repeatedly shot her friends and loved ones — including her son, Tywanza. Polly Sheppard hid under a table until the killer told her he'd spare her life only so she could tell others what he'd done.

But when they arrived at Emanuel, Maxine Smith, a member who is handling the church's public relations, told the survivors and the newspaper that Goff was out of town and had to give permission to take pictures inside the sanctuary where they have worshipped for decades and thousands of media photographs have been taken since the shooting.

Sanders stood outside on Calhoun Street in front of the historic white church she has called home her entire life. Sweltering noon heat beat onto her black suit. As tourists snapped pictures where once a wide memorial stood, she cried, repeating over and over to nobody, or maybe to God:

“Why won't my church let me inside?”

Sheppard arrived from talking with the office staff, who deferred to Smith, and stood angrily beside her old friend wishing she had a key to let herself in. She is, after all, a trustee.

Sanders said she's not concerned about all of the money.

She wants her son back.

She wants her elderly aunt Susie Jackson back.

And she wants her church back.

Adam Parker of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.