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Charleston church defiant in wake of shooting tragedy

Sanctuary reopens after S.C. massacre

Parishioners prayed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Sunday morning.
Parishioners prayed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Sunday morning.David Goldman/AP

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Worshipers streamed through the doors of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Sunday morning, many tracing the same steps taken last week by the man who walked in off the street and shot dead nine of the congregation’s friends and family members.

The church, shuttered since Wednesday night’s massacre, again opened its doors, and all were welcome. But gone were nine familiar faces that usually greet parishioners. And the atmosphere was different, as congregants sat under the watchful gaze of police officers who searched women’s purses upon entry and stood sentinel in the sanctuary.

Someone different stood in the pulpit, there to replace Mother Emanuel’s senior pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those killed. His chair sat draped in black Sunday.

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“This is our house of worship. The doors of the church — praise be to God — no evildoer, no demon in hell or on earth can close the doors of God’s church,” said the Rev. Norvel Goff Sr., who preached before a crowd of more than 1,000 people, filling Mother Emanuel’s pews with a mélange of races, cultures, and political views.

It was a defiant service, one honoring the lives of those lost while pledging not to succumb to the anger and rage and disbelief being felt by so many in this congregation and community, which remain in mourning. The blood and bullet holes have been removed, but the wounds from the shooting endure.

There were times when emotion swept over the crowd, and worshipers wept and cried out to God not only in their sorrow but also in their joy.

“God, we thank you for realizing you did not bring us this far to leave us alone,” Goff said, as churchgoers shouted “yes” and “amen” in response.

Still, walking into the African Methodist Episcopal church’s cathedral of the South felt “a little strange,” said Wilfred Simmons, who has been an usher there for more than 30 years.

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“They were the fixtures of the church. Those were the first ones you would see as you were walking in,” he said after the two-hour service. “It’s an empty space right now.”

The Rev. Norvel Goff (center) prayed at the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s empty seat.
The Rev. Norvel Goff (center) prayed at the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s empty seat.DAVID GOLDMAN/Getty Images

And Simmons suspects that hollowness to remain for the foreseeable future — although it seemed to ebb, ever so slightly, as the ritual of Sunday morning worship unfolded.

“Today was a good start, and particularly the sermon was inspiring for the occasion,” said the 75-year-old, his white usher’s gloves in hand.

The spine of Sunday’s service was clear: faith in God and his ability to help those in mourning transcend the alleged acts of one heinous man who reportedly was bent on starting a race war.

“We ask a question, Lord. We ask, ‘Why?’ We can’t help it, Lord. It is our human nature,” the Rev. John H. Gillison said during a moment of prayer. “But those of us who know Jesus know we can look through the windows of our faith.”

Listening in reverence at a church with nearly 200 years of history of social justice activism for black Americans were Governor Nikki Haley, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Representative Maxine Waters of California, who sat in the front rows. Conservative presidential candidate Rick Santorum sat in the back next to outspoken black civil rights activist DeRay McKesson.

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Some who felt compelled to be there drove hundreds of miles from their homes to add to the solace enveloping Charleston, a city that so values its houses of worship that it’s nicknamed the Holy City.

“It was like a draw in my soul,” said Eartha Ugude, who left her Florida home — and three of her four children — at 4 a.m. Saturday and drove to Charleston. Her 7-year-old daughter was her traveling companion. “We had to be here.”

So, too, did Jeanne Barreira, though her commute was much shorter. Holy City is her home.

“The response of the Charleston community with peace and love and forgiveness is what brought me here,” Barreira said after introducing herself to Vera Bryant, who squeezed into the pew next to her. It was Barreira’s first time inside of Mother Emanuel, an immaculate church of dark wooden archways and stained-glass windows. A massive pipe organ rises majestically from the balcony at the back of the church.

Bryant, a retired schoolteacher, visits frequently.

“For the past four years, New Year’s Eve is spent in this church, and I had intended to spend Father’s Day in this church,” she said. “I wasn’t going to let anything deter me from that today.”

After the service ended, as visitors and parishioners hugged each other in blazing summer sun, members of another church were remembering their neighbors. At the Citadel Square Baptist Church, Pastor David Walker wanted his congregation to offer their love and support to those who had lost so much.

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“We have some flowers, and we want to lay those flowers at the back door of the AME church,” he said just before his closing prayer calling for people to be “God’s example love to all of those that we meet.”

And with those words, the 50 or so white congregants of the Baptist church gathered their Bibles and bundles of white and purple chrysanthemums.

Next door, they hugged their neighbors and blessed with flowers the doorstep used by the alleged gunman to enter the church.

“This is the Holy City,” a 35-year-old Presha Dennis said after an embrace from her neighbor at Citadel Square Baptist Church. “So the outpouring we are getting, am I surprised? No. I expected it.”


Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.