They came back on Wednesday.
They walked through the back door by the parking lot, down two steps into the church basement and across the beige linoleum floor that one week ago was pockmarked with bullet holes and stained with blood.
They came by the dozens and dozens until no chair was empty — almost 200 people by one man’s count. First the older women arrived in skirts and dresses a full hour early. Then came the longtime parishioners and newcomers, media members and usual Bible study attendees, who, by some miracle, didn’t make it here last week.
They came armed with their Bibles, wearing the armor of faith. A string trio played hymns in the back while a pair of fire marshals and a Charleston police officer stood watch.
The slaying of nine people here last week couldn’t keep them away from another Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church.
The Rev. Norvel Goff, Emanuel AME’s interim pastor, opened the evening’s lesson, about the power of love, with a little laughter and a song.
“If you live right, Heaven belongs to you.
If you pray right, Heaven belongs to you.
If you love right, Heaven belongs to you.
Oh-oh, Heaven belongs to you.”
The pastor didn’t stand at the lectern. In his clerical collar and crisp black jacket, he paced down the aisle between two sets of chairs. With his Bible in one hand and glasses in the other, he intoned from Scripture.
“What kind of love is it that God has for us?” he bellowed.
“Unconditional!” they replied.
He quoted John 3:16 from the King James Bible: God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. He called for testimony of God’s love. One man said he was healed from a cancer.
One woman recovered from a house fire that destroyed almost everything she owned, another from suicidal thoughts, another from a pulmonary embolism.
And he called them to ban hate from their hearts, “not because we are weak, but because we are strong.” He closed with First Peter 4:8: Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sin.
“Many of our hearts our broken, but only God can fix a broken heart.” he said. “That’s my testimony.”
Outside 110 Calhoun St., television news cameras rolled around Mother Emanuel’s iron gate waiting for Goff’s audience. But inside, they lingered, laughing and embracing, taking photos and wishing one another a blessed night. Marjorie McIver posed for a picture with her loved ones.
Her sister Myra Thompson was killed while leading last week’s Bible study.
“God loves us. He’s forgiven us of our sins. It behooves us to forgive others,” she said. “That message of love, even for your enemies, even for those who use you, who despise you. That’s a powerful message.”
So McIver has to forgive. That’s what her sister would have wanted. That’s what she would have preached if she were in the church basement Wednesday night.