CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The spiritual community that wowed the world with its forgiveness in the face of the darkest evil came together Sunday morning and celebrated history — both recent and past.
They worshiped for the first time since the Confederate flag came down on the Capitol grounds on Friday. Its removal was prompted in large part by the horror that unfolded last month in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or Mother Emanuel, as it’s often called.
That was when a white racist who glorified the Confederate flag gunned down and killed nine people, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who had waged a battle against the flag’s presence.
For this flock, the victory was personal.
“I do want to take this opportunity to thank the governor of South Carolina,” said the Rev. Norvel Goff, the interim pastor. “Thank you for taking down the flag, because we are one people, one nation, under God.”
The sanctuary erupted in cheers.
Even as they recognized the historical significance of what happened last week in Columbia, this day was as much about celebrating themselves as they continue to heal. Each July, the congregation of Mother Emanuel AME Church picks a day to recognize their deep history, now 197 years strong.
In more ways than one, this was their day — at a time when they may have needed it most.
Tragedy has hit the church before, and always they’ve overcome. Just look at the church’s beginnings.
One of its founders, when it was at another location and known as the Hampstead Church, was a freed slave named Denmark Vesey. He began planning an elaborate slave revolt in 1821. When he was found out, he and some of his followers were executed. And the Hampstead Church was burned to the ground.
The church rebuilt then, just as it did again after an earthquake destroyed it once more in 1886. The second time around, it reopened where it is today.
“We now stand to write a new chapter,” the pastor said Sunday to a packed sanctuary that included visitors black and white. “The only way that evil can prevail in the world is for good people to sit down and be quiet. We are better together than we are separate and apart.”
These words of unity, and the enthusiastic praise and music that followed, represented the tone of a morning meant to help people remember what’s most important at this time in history.
The removal of the flag, some would say, was both momentous and nowhere near enough.
On Friday, when the flag came down, church member Willi Glee, 74, stood outside Mother Emanuel not feeling as optimistic as Goff did on Sunday. In his mind it was a symbolic gesture, orchestrated by people — politicians especially — so that they could feel better about themselves.
He’s seen this country get jolted to attention before —Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, are two examples he served up. People reach out in love and respect, but eventually they return to their separate places, he said. What he’d like to see is a concerted effort to educate children, white and black, but he doesn’t hold his breath. What if, he wondered, the shooter had been taught early about respect and honoring others?
Rarely had Glee ever seen a white face in his churches pews, but in recent weeks, there have been so many on Sundays he can barely find a seat himself. He trusts that won’t last.
Our history of “mistrust and mistreatment” runs too deep, he fears, for us to see lasting change. And the North, where he’s also lived, shouldn’t kid itself; it isn’t much better.
“I like Malcolm X’s quote,” he said. ” ‘The South is any place below the Canadian border.'”
The packed sanctuary Sunday morning included throngs of visitors, many of them white. Some were dressed for church, while others wore shorts or jeans — clearly on vacation.
There were religious leaders from other denominations, their collars giving them away. At the front of the sanctuary sat dignitaries, including the former first lady of South Carolina, Jenny Sanford.
About a dozen visitors who were in town for a family reunion arrived to feel their people’s history, to offer support and, in one case, to provide a young girl with lessons.
April Thompson from New Jersey got choked up explaining why it was important for her to come to this service with her 10-year-old daughter, who she named Serenity, after her favorite prayer.
“I don’t know if they talked about it at school,” Thompson said, referring to the shooting. “I wanted to bring my daughter so that she knows what’s going on in the world — and to not be afraid.”
A pair of white women from Ohio came bearing rubber bracelets that said: “Choose love and reject hate.”
A man from Buffalo, New York, who didn’t want to be named and doesn’t go to church himself, said he traveled to Charleston just for this service.
“I came down here because I was so moved by their grace, humility and courage,” said the man, who is white. “I want a dab of their grace. … I’m more angry than they are.”
The community he and other outsiders discovered was one determined to rejoice. They sang “We’ve Come This Far by Faith,” and “All To Jesus I Surrender.” Young girls, dubbed “praise dancers,” performed to lyrics that included, “I’ve come through the fire. … I’ve been broken into pieces. … He’ll never put more on me than I can bear. I believe it. I receive it.”
As the sanctuary came to its feet when they were done, the girls ran up and down the aisles, all smiles and received high-fives.
The tragedy of what happened here on June 17 was not far from anyone’s mind. Ushers wore memorial ribbons for the “Emanuel 9.” A prayer was offered to thank God for this day, “in spite of what it looks like, in spite of what it feels like.”
The slain churchgoers were remembered in word for their “vast powers” that remain, even though their bodies are gone. They will serve as beacons for what is right — truth, justice, compassion, hope and faith — one woman said.
Another, reading announcements, invited churchgoers to a July 19 performance of a play in which victim Tywanza Sanders was supposed to appear. The play’s name: “Life.” Members were reminded that mental health counselors are standing by to offer help; some were already waiting downstairs. And words of gratitude were directed at the interim pastor for all that he’s doing — and has done.
“You had the faith, and God gave you the strength, to preside over all nine funerals,” the woman said, as the crowd applauded.
A little girl, too young to understand why some people were wiping away tears, wrote down her feelings about this important day on a church program: “I love this song,” “I love food” and “I love the color pink.”
It’s not for us to understand why nine died, said Goff, the interim pastor. Nor should we point fingers.
“None of us have been so saved that we can judge somebody else,” he said. “Sometimes you just can’t explain what takes place in life. … The battle is not ours. It belongs to the Lord.”
Yvonne Levine, 71, is a lifelong member of Mother Emanuel and was dressed in her Sunday best of all white. She flipped open her program to the page dedicated to the nine who were killed, which featured photographs of them all, including Pinckney.
She ran her fingers over his face and whispered to those around her, who didn’t know him personally, “He was a beautiful pastor.”
Between words of inspiration and hands raised to the heavens in song and praise, a line of guests came forward to offer gifts. Almost a month after the shooting, they keep coming.
A Maryland politician and minister presented letters from mayors, council members and congressmen from his state. A delegation from Africa, both Muslims and Protestants, stepped forward to voice their solidarity through a translator. An artist unveiled a painting of the nine who died.
A white pastor from Durham, North Carolina, spoke for his congregation of 7,000 when he said, “We rejoice with you in what took place [last] week” at the Capitol. The crowd, again, erupted in cheers as he continued, offering his own short sermon about the Lord’s strength.
“He has the power to break the chains of oppression. He has the power to break the chains of racism,” said the Rev. Benji Kelley of New Hope Church. “He has the power to change the world.”
That sort of belief is what buoys members of the church, people such as Thomas Rose, 66, who said he was at the Bible study that turned deadly in June but left early.
“We’re trying to keep our hands in God’s hands and know that God has the ultimate plan,” Rose said. “I believe and know that God will pull it together because God does not lose.”
And while God does what he needs to do, this is a community that vows to stay banded together in faith and grace.
“I’ve lost five pounds,” the pastor said with a laugh after an especially emotional song that brought everyone to their feet — including the visitors fanning themselves in the balcony.
Welcome to the Mother Emanuel aerobics hour,” he said. “After 197 years, we still have movement.”
And they pray that it takes the world to a better place.