Romano: A day for unity, prayer at Mother Emanuel

People fill the street in front of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during the Sunday morning service, four days after nine of its members were shot to death in the basement during Bible study.
People fill the street in front of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during the Sunday morning service, four days after nine of its members were shot to death in the basement during Bible study.
Published June 22, 2015

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Come, the man said, this is our house of worship.

And so, on a cloudless Sunday morning, they came.

They came to mourn. To worship. To comfort, and to gawk.

They came until the 800-seat Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was filled beyond its means. And still more came. They spilled onto Calhoun Street where barricades were set up, and stereo speakers were brought outside so the sermon could be heard.

This was the first service held at Mother Emanuel since police say a 21-year-old man with a racist agenda gunned down nine members of the historically black congregation, including the pastor, after a Bible study class.

• • •

"No evildoer, no demon in hell or on earth, can close the doors of God's church,'' the Rev. Norvel Goff, a presiding elder over 30 AME churches in South Carolina, said from the pulpit Sunday morning.

• • •

Blood had been scrubbed from the basement floor, and bullet holes in the walls had been patched. And yet, not all evidence of Wednesday's massacre could be covered up.

On the altar, the chair of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was left vacant, except for his black robe. Likewise, the empty seat of 87-year-old Susie Jackson held her choir robe.

"The mood was good. We were holding hands and singing like always,'' said former South Carolina state Rep. Floyd Breeland, who was married in the church 56 years ago. "But you could feel there was a void.''

Water bottles were passed around the pews, and handheld fans were in constant motion. The service ran more than two hours long and, for the folks standing outside, the sun was a penance to be endured.

And still the people came.

The flowers that had been placed on the sidewalk in front of Mother Emanuel since early Thursday morning were now stacked 3 to 4 feet deep.

• • •

"A lot of folks expected us to do something strange, to break out in a riot. Well, they just don't know us. They don't know . . . we are people of faith,'' the Rev. Goff said.

• • •

Outside the church's front doors, a half-dozen police officers and sheriff's deputies stood watch. Several others patrolled a side entrance, and a bomb squad vehicle was nearby.

Bags were checked going into the church, and the Rev. Goff made mention of members of the congregation who, for whatever reason, were not yet ready to return.

As forgiving as the victims' families have been, and for as much grace as the community has shown, an undercurrent of tension exists.

It is not being hidden, and it will not be ignored. It's just being set aside for a short time.

There are still nine funerals to be held, and there are lives to be pieced back together.

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But soon, shouts will be heard. Issues — like the state's love affair with a Confederate flag — will be addressed. And gentility may be forgotten.

"When the time is right, you will hear from Emanuel. You will hear from the community,'' said Daniel Martin Jr., a former trustee of the AME church and a family judge in South Carolina's 9th Judicial Circuit. "You will hear loudly and from the voices of many that change must come.

"That's why I know these people will not die in vain. Change needs to come, not just in South Carolina, but in the rest of the country, too.''

• • •

"The blood of the Mother Emanuel 9 requires us to work not only for justice in this case, but for those who are still living in the margins of life. . . . That we stay on the battlefield until there's no more fights to be fought,'' the Rev. Goff said.

• • •

It is a small gesture, one that likely would have gone unnoticed a week earlier.

An elderly African-American woman is trying to navigate the long and steep collection of steps that surround the front of the church.

In her left hand is a cane. Holding her right hand and bracing her elbow is a young white man, not all that different-looking from accused murderer Dylann Roof. One step after another, he supports her on her way home.

From out of nowhere, a group of voices break out in song. Four men, two black and two white, have hoisted a homemade billboard on their shoulders with the message "Charleston United.''

A path clears in the crowd and more voices join in the singing of Amazing Grace as the men carry their sign to the sidewalk. It is placed in front of the church and they begin handing out markers as people line up to write whatever message of faith, solidarity or condolence they might choose.

Nearby, another woman proclaims to no one in particular:

"Man cannot take credit for this. This is God doing his finest work.''

• • •

"I want you to hug three persons right next to you, and tell them it's going to be all right,'' the Rev. Goff says as he ends the service.

• • •

From the bottom of the stairs, a law enforcement official shouts to officers near Mother Emanuel's front doors:

"That's it. The service is over.

"Nobody goes back in the church.''