Hours after the shootings at “Mother” Emanuel AME Church, the Rev. Norvel Goff arrived at the Embassy Suites in downtown Charleston, where 300 people had packed the third-floor ballroom, waiting for news from the coroner.
He walked in around midnight, calm but quietly devastated, and led them in prayer and song. His healing ministry had begun.
Currently the presiding elder of the Edisto District of the 7th Episcopal District of South Carolina, Goff, 65, was named interim pastor of the South’s oldest black congregation, Mother Emanuel, at one of the lowest points in the church’s storied and often tragic history. Almost 193 years after founding church member Denmark Vesey plotted a slave rebellion against the city of Charleston, authorities say a young white supremacist gunned down eight black parishioners and their pastor as they studied the Bible beneath the sanctuary on June 17.
Goff was in the church earlier that day, meeting with its pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Around 9:10 p.m., his phone rang. He rushed back to Emanuel and was immediately directed to the hotel around the corner, where families and their loved ones had gathered.
“He is serving as a midwife who aids the helpless in the process of birthing of new faith, hope, love, joy and peace for all humankind,” said the Rev. Herbert L. Temoney, one of 10 chaplains from the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy who responded to the shooting. “He is a shepherd to hurting sheep.”
Encircled by chaplains called to the scene, Goff prayed for hope, strength, peace and unity that night. He asked God to welcome the souls of their departed brothers and sisters into heaven. And he encouraged the victims’ families to accept what God had allowed.
Last Sunday, Goff delivered an impassioned sermon from the pulpit of Emanuel, the church’s first service since the slayings. On Friday, he was to share the stage at College of Charleston’s TD Arena with President Barack Obama to hear the president deliver the eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral. Goff delivered the eulogy for church sexton Ethel Lance on Thursday and will lead funeral services for other victims over the next few days.
Whether he intones from the pulpit or counsels families in private, his message is the same: “In order for us to begin the healing process, we must forgive as we have been forgiven,” he said. “That does not mean that the process of justice does not continue.”
A graduate of Morris Brown College and Yale University School of Divinity, Goff is used to walking the line between church and state. He ran for state Senate in Connecticut in the 1980s and served as the majority leader of the Hartford City Council. He’s also led NAACP branches in Hartford and Rochester, N.Y., along with pastoring churches there and in Columbia.
Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, who worked with Goff during his time in Rochester leading that city’s Baber AME Church and NAACP branch, said there is no one better to shepherd the flock.
While in Rochester, Goff, as leader of the local NAACP branch, convinced black employees to let him take their complaints to Kodak, instead of the government and then convinced Kodak to voluntarily investigate racism and discrimination at its facility. The Rochester-based company agreed, and ended up paying out $13 million in restitution to the affected employees, all without government involvement.
“There is something about him that exudes confidence that it will be OK,” Slaughter said.
As the presiding elder, it would have been his place to be there if tragedy struck any church, so Goff as interim pastor “fits hand-in-glove,” said the Rev. Dr. Juenarrl Keith, who leads the neighboring Mount Pleasant District. Church leaders will gather at Emanuel later this year to select a new pastor. Until then, he’ll shepherd his parishioners through another traumatic chapter at Mother Emanuel.
“He knows the world is watching and he wants Charleston to be a better place because of this,” said the Rev. Rob Dewey, senior chaplain of Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, who assisted Goff on the night of the shooting. “He knows his responsibility and I think he’s fulfilled it so well. ... He’s got to be so exhausted.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.