Emanuel AME Church, closed since a gunman killed nine parishioners on Wednesday, is planning to reopen Sunday for prayer as Charleston continues its efforts to heal.
“People want to show their support and you’ve got to get there early,” said Kay Hightower, 50, of Columbia, S.C., whose great-grandfather was a minister at Emanuel.
“My great-grandfather’s tomb is in that church. That church is a symbol. That’s why it was attacked,” she said. “We shall not be moved. [The gunman] broke our hearts and crushed us. But you get up and go to church.”
Hightower said she expects crowds, police cordons, and limited parking. Services normally start at 9:30 a.m., but nothing is normal after the shooting, which killed the church’s staff of ministers.
“The minister usually opens, does the readings — I don’t know who will be doing those things now. Lay people can do them. We’re just in such virgin territory,” she said.
News of the reopening spread through the city as hundreds visited the grounds of the downtown church to mourn and express their solidarity.
A pair of sisters clutched each other and a bouquet of flowers outside the church earlier Saturday. They were old enough to remember when people of color could not use public bathrooms downtown and they recalled how they marched and carried picket signs supporting African American civil rights as part of the historic church community that continued to mourn its dead on Saturday.
“It’s just unfortunate that we have some evil people in the world. Especially in a church,” said Cynthia Wright-Murphy of Hughesville, Md., of the attack Wednesday night that left nine black churchgoers dead and Dylann Roof, a white high school dropout, facing murder charges. "I can’t put my arms around a person who would do that.”
Her sister nodded and repeated the same theme sounded by many in the black community, including relatives of those slain.
“We are going to forgive him because that’s what God wants us to do,” said Carolyn Wright-Porcher of Charleston. “That’s a way of saying to the young man that he’s not going to win. If he’s trying to start a race war, we’re going to show more love.”
Days after the shootings, Charleston was still reeling from the nation's latest mass shooting attack. Roof, who court documents say shouted racist comments during the shooting, has been charged with nine counts of murder in a hate crime investigation in this Southern city where race relations has been an ongoing issue for centuries.
A black T-shirt hung outside the church bore a stark message: “Do you believe us now?”
Roof is being held without bail following his first court appearance on Friday, in which he appeared unemotional and impassive.
Felecia Sanders survived the attack on the Bible study group by pretending to be dead, but lost her son Tywanza. During Roof's bond hearing Friday, she came face to face via video link with the alleged shooter, who is said to have spent an hour with the group before opening fire.
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” Sanders told Roof, whose hands were bound behind his back. “You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts.”
“As we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you,” she said.
A march was planned later Saturday in Charleston and prayers and vigils were expected to continue on Sunday.
Hours after the bond hearing, thousands of people filled a basketball arena for a community vigil for the victims. The more than 4,000 Charlestonians, white and black, young and old, mourned together. Many seats were filled by preachers from a variety of faiths and city, county and state officials who called on the community to recognize that death had brought the community together, not ripped it apart.
“If that man thought he could divide this city or this country with his racial hatred, we are here today to say he miserably failed,” said the popular mayor of the city, Joseph P. Riley Jr. “Our diversity is not a weakness, it is a strength,” Riley said, as the predominantly white audience applauded vociferously.
But still there was an undertone of political division, as the mayor and other speakers reiterated longstanding pleas for the state to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state Capitol and for the country to pass laws to restrict the use of guns.
“We can’t just forget about this. There has got to be a better way. We do not want to live in a country where we need a security guard in a Bible center,” Riley said.
Emanuel AME Church dates from the early 19th century and was a center in the fight against slavery. It has continued its role as a beacon for civil rights through the turbulent 1960s and to recent times as the nation grapples with police violence against blacks.
As a state senator, Emanuel pastor the Rev. Clementa Pinckney had fought for legislation requiring body cameras for police in the wake of the April slaying of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was running from a white North Charleston police officer, Michael Slager.
Slager is housed in the jail cell next to Roof's.
The church was awash is a sea of flowers Saturday, drawing scores of mourners.
“Our hearts are breaking and our tears are flowing with you all,” said one message from Boston posted at the church.
Georgette Sanders of McClellanville, S.C., a basket weaver at the local market, arrived with her husband Allen, carrying another bucket of blooms.
“It’s like our mother church," she said. “All you can do is pray. You can’t have hate and love together in the same heart.”
Tanfani and Hennessy-Fiske reported from Charleston and Muskal from Los Angeles.