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At Charleston church, worshipers seek solace after tragedy

Parishioners of the Emanuel AME Church of Charleston came home Sunday to 'Mother Emanuel'

Singing, crying and clinging to one another for solace, a grieving congregation returned to “Mother Emanuel” on Sunday, determined to restore the historic church from a murder scene to a place of worship.

An overflow crowd packed the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church just four days after a young man spouting racist ideology came to a Bible study class and methodically killed nine people.

For some parishioners, it was too soon to return. But Felicia Breeland, a retired music teacher and third-generation member of Emanuel, said she never considered staying home.

“I wanted to come,” said Breeland, 81, wearing a white dress and hat. “That gunman could not change us from coming together and having our church service.”

Security was tight, with police stationed around the church and near the pulpit. Backpacks and cameras weren't allowed inside. A quiet crowd climbed Mother Emanuel’s stairs and sat fanning themselves in the summer heat.

When the sanctuary was full, worshipers were ushered downstairs to the fellowship hall — the same room where the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight others were shot Wednesday night.

Several hundred people filled the street outside, sweating in the sun and listening to the proceedings over loudspeakers. There were curious tourists and others who listened intently, raising their hands in prayer.

At 10 a.m., church bells tolled for nine minutes throughout Charleston — known as the “Holy City” because of its many churches — and across South Carolina.

Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum were among those at the service. So was Cornell William Brooks, national leader of the NAACP.

Under big stained glass windows and murals of the crucifixion and the resurrection, elder pastor Norvel Goff began with a call to rejoice as the crowd stood and clapped. He choked back tears as he read the names of those he called “the Mother Emanuel Nine.”

Cynthia Hurd, 54. Susie Jackson, 87. Ethel Lance, 70. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49. Clementa Pinckney, 41. Tywanza Sanders, 26. Daniel L. Simmons, 74. Sharonda Singleton, 45. Myra Thompson, 59.

“I am reminded this morning about the freshness of death [which] comes like a thief in the night,” Goff said. “Many of our hearts are breaking. Many of us are still shedding tears.”

“Amen!” the congregants replied.

“But no demon on Earth can close the doors of God's church,” he said.

The first Bible reading was from 1 Thessalonians: “Quench not the spirit ... hold fast to what is good.”

“They were in the house of the Lord studying your word, but the devil also entered,” Presiding Elder John Gillison said. “The devil cannot be in control of your church.”

Kay Hightower, 50, whose great-grandfather was a pastor of Mother Emanuel, had driven from Columbia, staying overnight with friends to ensure she would get to the service on time. But when she arrived, she paused. The door she usually entered through was the one the gunman had used. She walked through it anyway.

“We're not letting anybody take us out, claim the church,” she said.

AME member Reba Martin said she became tearful when she thought about Pinckney, the first person to die. “When he came, the church population was down, and he would always be so positive,” she said. “He said, ‘One day I’m going to see this church full. There won’t be an empty seat in the house.’ And today was that day. And I’m sure he did see it.”

People who typically attended the Wednesday night Bible study spoke of narrow misses. Thomas Rose, 66, said he usually came, but last Wednesday his wife took him to pray at a sister church. The shooting victims “were all my family,” he said.

Jamila Gadsden lost her aunt, Myra Thompson, who “loved God and left here doing what she loved.” She urged people to honor her aunt’s memory “by continuing to love instead of hate.”

“We are very forgiving, but we will not forget,” Gadsden said.

Many visitors at the service were white, but members said that was not uncommon.

Lucinda Magwood, 60, a registered nurse from nearby Johns Island, sat next to a stranger: Kathie Corley, 69, a flutist and former member of the church from Charleston. Magwood is black, Corley white. Corley said that she was welcomed at the church and that she wasn't surprised the man who has been charged in the slayings, Dylann Roof, was welcomed too.

“You would think a house of worship is a sanctuary,” Magwood said.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) called it “a wonderful, inspiring service.”

“We must work together — no tragedy should render us helpless,” Waters said.

Tycely Williams, 40, flew from Washington, D.C., to honor her great-grandfather, a presiding elder at Emanuel AME, on Father’s Day. She said she grew up in Birmingham, Ala., after the white supremacists’ 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church there, which killed four little girls.

The bombing lingered in her mother’s mind, Williams said.

“My mother always called me back down the hall when she sent me off to Sunday school,” she said. “This too is a community that will never recover.”

Atlee Prince Jr. of Savannah, Ga., drove to Charleston on Sunday, arriving after the service in the city where he had lived for 15 years.

“I needed to be here, to inhale the pain and the sorrow, but also the hope,” said Prince, dapper in a seersucker jacket, white linen slacks, blue striped tie and matching pocket square.

Prince said he was amazed by the victims’ families’ and the black community's ability to forgive.

“It's an ability born out of a lot of ‘opportunities’ to forgive,” he said. “Like anything, the more you have to do it, the better you get.”

Breeland called Sunday’s service “a good beginning of healing.” But, she said, “It’s going to take a while.”

Members of Citadel Square Baptist Church next door came over in a procession, leaving bouquets of daisies and embracing AME members, including Gadsden.

“We came to let you know we love you and God has great things in store for your church,” said Ann Spinks, 67, a retiree from James Island.

Outside Mother Emanuel, a crowd broke into a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Charleston’s healing continued Sunday night, when thousands of smiling people, some singing “This Little Light of Mine,” clasped hands across the Ravenel Bridge as a symbol of unity.

Geno Porter, 23, an electrical engineer from North Charleston, was among the diverse crowd on the span linking Charleston to Mount Pleasant.

“I’m hoping that this will bring up conversations we’ve never had before, issues of race and inequality,” Porter said. “They do exist throughout the country. We’ve got to have the courage to have the conversations.”

Times staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


9:28 p.m.: This post was updated throughout.

8:30 a.m.: This post was updated with Goff talking about how police encouraged the reopening of the church Sunday.

8:14 a.m.: This post was updated with sermon comments by the Rev. Norvel Goff

7:25 a.m.: This post was updated with details from the church service, and additional comments by worshipers.

6:34 a.m.: Post was updated to note church services had started. 

This story was originally posted at 6:16 a.m.