Historic church suffers a new horrific chapter

The Rev. Clementa Pinckney stands inside Emanuel AME Church shortly after he was named its new pastor in 2010. Pinckney also serves as a state senator. Staff/file

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

State Rep. Bakari Sellers stands in a dapper suit under sweltering heat before national TV cameras aimed at the historic church. He tries not to glance at his cell phone clock.

The son of civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers, he wants to speak, to remind, to mourn with the nation.

But the news crew is running late, and he needs to dash to a prayer vigil a few blocks away at Morris Brown AME, daughter church of “Mother Emanuel,” as the devastated congregation affectionately is known.

The historic Charleston congregation, founded in 1818, was the first African Methodist Episcopal church in the South. It remains the oldest.

However, its story really begins closer to 1816 when Morris Brown, a free shoemaker and devout Christian, walked out of a white, segregated Methodist Church in Charleston, an AME Church website states.

He formed Emanuel AME which, like other black churches, became defenders of freedom to worship — and became deeply interwoven with freedom to do so much else.

One of its founding members was Denmark Vesey.

Almost to this precise day 193 years ago, Vesey plotted a failed slave rebellion from the very church where so much blood spilled Wednesday as worshippers gathered to study God’s word.

Vesey’s rebellion might have charted a new course in 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. Emanuel AME was burned and its members driven underground to worship for decades. All-black churches were outlawed.

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

Mother Emanuel went underground. But rose again.

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

Despite what officials are calling a horrendous hate crime, enough has changed in the ensuing 150 years that the nation elected its first black president. Now he too is left to mourn.

President and Mrs. Obama knew Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor who is among the dead.

“Emanuel AME opened its doors to strangers who sought healing. It’s risen before from flames, earthquakes and other dark times,” President Obama said in a televised addressed to a shocked nation.

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.”

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.

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