Worshipers in Charleston, Atlanta focus on healing, action

Gillettie Bennett, a local school teacher, is the first in line at sunrise at the "Mother" Emanuel AME Church waiting for it to open four days after the mass shooting that claimed the lives of its pastor and eight others on Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston. Bennett said she was attending the service because it represented the resilience of the Charleston people. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Gillettie Bennett, a local school teacher, is the first in line at sunrise at the "Mother" Emanuel AME Church waiting for it to open four days after the mass shooting that claimed the lives of its pastor and eight others on Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston. Bennett said she was attending the service because it represented the resilience of the Charleston people. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Bringing the big news to you. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent five journalists to Charleston to cover the shooting death of nine worshipers and the aftermath. Count on the AJC to continue producing thoughtful journalism about the national conversation on race and violence this case has spawned. Visit AJC.com for breaking news and MyAJC. com for enterprise and opinion about the Charleston shooting deaths.

In 2010, when Clementa C. Pinckney became pastor of the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South, he was concerned that on some Sundays the pews were only about half full.

Charleston is called the Holy City because of its long tolerance for different religions and its many historic churches. African-Americans have long been part of that fabric. But changing demographics and neighborhoods, said members of Emanuel AME Church, had placed a strain on the church’s attendance.

“When he came in, he always said that he was going to build this church and fill it up. Fill all the pews,” said church stewardess Reba Martin, who has been a member of “Mother” Emanuel, for 26 years. “Today was that day.”

On Sunday, for the first time since a gunman walked into the 124-year-old structure on Wednesday and slayed nine worshipers, including Pinckney, Emanuel AME Church was open for services.

The church had been declared a crime scene up until Saturday afternoon, leaving members to wonder if church services would happen at all on Sunday.

“We were pleased when authorities called us and said you can go back to Mother Emanuel and worship,” said the Rev. Norvel Goff Sr., presiding elder of the Edisto District of the AME Church, who had the task of standing in for Pinckney.

“Some might need more time,” he told worshipers. “But for those of you who are here, being open on this Sunday sends a message to every demon in Hell and on Earth that while somebody wanted to divide the races, no weapon formed against us shall prosper.”

Worshipers gathered as early as 6 a.m. to get in line for what was expected to be an historic and emotional occasion. Church bells tolled across the city at 10 a.m. As much as church leaders tried to stick with the routine, Sunday was different. Several dignitaries were among those arriving early and claiming seats. Among them were: Mayor Joe Riley; Gov. Nikki Haley; U.S. senator Tim Scott and former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Police screened worshipers and patrolled inside in sanctuary. Several hundred stood outside and listened to the services. Those who couldn’t be seated were sent to the basement, an overflow seating area where the nine were killed.

Shooting suspect Dylann Roof told police he wanted his deadly rampage to start a race war. Instead, people of different faiths and different races, in Charleston, in Atlanta and across the country, drew closer.

“I just want to be here to support them, because [Mother Emanuel] has been so resilient and they showed the world that they can’t be defeated,” said Gillettie Bennett, a high school math teacher from nearby Mount Pleasant, who was the first person in line. “I am so proud to say I am from here and I can’t think of any other way to support the church and its mission.”

There were scattered displays of grief in a church that could have nine funerals to conduct. Goff’s sermon focused on unity and forgiveness.

“We are a people of faith,” he said. “The only way for evil to triumph is if good folks sit down and do nothing. We are going to pursue justice and hold our elected officials accountable to do the right thing. The blood of Emanuel requires us to fight for justice.”

Goff preached from Psalms 46:1-7: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”

Throughout the service, worshipers were also constantly reminded of the nine who died Wednesday at the church, while they were in Bible Study: Rev. Pinckney; Cynthia Hurd, 54; the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49; The Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74; Myra Thompson, 59.

The name of the 21-year-old man who killed them was never uttered.

“(The nine) were martyred for humanity,” said Charleston County Family Court Judge Daniel E. Martin Jr., whose family has been members with the church for a century. “They were martyred for racial unity. This is going to bring a change not only to South Carolina, but also to the world. Their lives will mean something.”

Throughout Metro Atlanta, several churches remembered the Charleston victims and called for healing.

The Rev. David Lewicki, co-pastor of North Decatur Presbyterian Church, told his mostly white congregation the shootings are not just about “one suffering individual … It is the fruit of white supremacy.”

He urged congregants to confront their own racism.

“It gets more violent the more it is resisted,” Lewicki said.

At Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, the names of the victims were read aloud, before the tolling of a solitary church bell.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock put the massacre into the wider context of the recent spate of police shootings of unarmed black men.

“If you kill nine black people in a church, you will at least make it safely to your bond hearing,” he said. “But if you want to die or face the real prospects of dying, here’s how you do it: Be suspected of stealing a cigarette while black. … Pick up a toy gun in a Wal-Mart while black. Play your music too loud while black. Runaway from the cops while black.”

Outside of Mother Emanuel, pilgrims from all over the country continued to place flowers and tributes on the ever-growing memorial.

Jean Geneva Jackson said she arrived just as the door was being closed. She didn’t make it inside the service.

“But the Lord let me reach some people out here,” Jackson said. “God wanted me to work outside in the fields today, but I am here.”

An hour after the services, Judge Martin and his wife, Reba took refuge from the heat under a Red Cross tent in front of ongoing construction of an elevator – Pinckney’s last project. Mother Emanuel’s pulpit is on one of the highest points in the city, but the Martin’s said that the old church wasn’t properly equipped for older parishioners who couldn’t walk up the steep stairs at the front of the church or navigate the narrow ones inside. It forces them to attend church in the overflow room. The elevator would fix that.

“He was trying to be progressive and he respected the elders,” Reba Martin said, noting that the first thing he did when he became pastor was install cameras, which ultimately led to the suspected shooter’s identification and capture. “He had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. He will be missed. They all will be.”

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