CHARLESTON, S.C. (RNS) A few weeks after a young white gunman killed nine people at a Bible study in a black church here, another young white man walked into a Bible study at another black South Carolina church.
This young man did not seem to understand why his unexpected presence at Campbell Chapel, 100 miles away in the coastal town of Bluffton, unnerved the regulars that Wednesday evening, the traditional time for Bible study in African Methodist Episcopal churches.
It was as if he hadn’t heard about Dylann Roof, his white supremacist manifesto and his intention to start a race war. It was as if he had not felt the shock waves of the crime that unsettled the nation. The young man’s awkward body language, disapproving sighs and eye-rolling only made the congregants more nervous as they tried to focus on Scripture.
On June 17 in Charleston, Roof had sat and listened for nearly an hour as a group of 12 studied a passage from the Gospel of Mark. Then, authorities say, he opened fire with a gun he received as a present for his 21st birthday.
The horror of that night was still vivid to the Rev. Jon Black, Campbell Chapel’s pastor. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, slain at Emanuel, had once pastored Campbell, and had mentored Black.
Black remembered watching confusing, inconclusive news footage of downtown Charleston on June 17 as reporters tried to piece the story together. At the same time, he heard the voice of a fellow pastor through his phone, a friend calling from outside Emanuel, then ringed by official vehicles shining red and blue lights.
“The ambulances are not moving. The ambulances are not moving,” his distraught friend kept repeating. “It can’t be good.” And then he told Black that Pinckney was dead.
“It crushed me,” Black said. “I said, ‘That can’t be right.’”
But Black knew that it was true. And when the strange young man showed up in his church a few weeks later, he also knew that as a Christian, he could not ask him to leave. The litany that AME church leaders had asked its pastors to share with their congregations the Sunday after the Charleston massacre was titled “Our Doors Are Open.”
“So how do you do that on Sunday morning and close them on Wednesday night?” Black recalled recently in an interview with RNS.
In the AME church, you don’t. The young man was welcomed, and he still comes to Bible study at Campbell Chapel sometimes. The church’s doors remain open.
In the wake of the shooting at Emanuel, congregations in the AME and other black churches have ratcheted up security — installing cameras and, in some cases, posting armed ushers. Officers sometimes sit in on Bible study, and law enforcement ran a background check on Campbell Chapel’s unfamiliar visitor.
And much has changed in Charleston and South Carolina.
Blacks and whites cried together in the streets. The Confederate flag came down — for good — from its pole on the Statehouse grounds. White families joined Emanuel AME. The church was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The city chiseled the names of the dead on libraries and schools. Artists honored them in portraits and murals. And the president of the United States, the nation’s first African-American president, came to Charleston and spoke about racism with a conviction that many had not heard before, and then led the congregation in an arresting rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
“For many people who really did not understand that a deeply entrenched and vicious form of racism still existed in America, they now clearly had the evidence,” said College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers, who co-authored a book on Charleston and the massacre.
Some had also hoped that Charleston — in ways that Ferguson, Baltimore and other American cities had not been able to — might persuade the nation to rouse itself. Surely these black victims — eight devout Christians and their pastor, murdered in prayer — would open a new chapter on race relations. Surely these martyrs’ witness of faith would appeal to the religious conviction that remains part of the American soul.
The Emanuel Nine, as the slaying victims have come to be known, saw their faith as the starting point for a better city and country. Many people in Charleston still claim that faith. They hold out hope. Charleston, after all, with its low skyline outlined by church spires, is known as the “Holy City.”
Bible study has continued every Wednesday since the massacre at Emanuel, in the church basement, the same linoleum-tiled room where Roof pulled his gun.
It looks about the same as it did the day he came, except there are photographs of the nine victims framed by the entrance. Typically, about 20 people came to Bible study, but far fewer were there the night of the shooting, because a church meeting earlier in the evening had pushed the study later into the night.
After June 17, Bible study was packed with visitors, black and white. “Standing room only,” said Willi Glee, the chairman pro tem of the church’s board of trustees and a member since 1991. Attendance has been dwindling since, however.
On a recent Wednesday evening, about 40 people came. Two-thirds black and one-third white, they sat unsegregated in folding chairs, facing Emanuel’s new pastor.
The Rev. Betty Deas Clark used her clarion voice to quiet a lighthearted, small-talking crowd to take up the serious subject of the evening: how to be a good church member. But she often employed her own humor to drive home her teaching.
“You’ve got to learn to love the hell out of other people,” she said, drawing some titters for her choice of words. “I tell people all the time, the way I use ‘hell’ in church is totally different from the way you use it at home. ’Cause you do use it. You know you use it.”
Once before the final prayer, as she spoke about the esteem with which she holds her calling as a pastor, she referred to the bloodshed that took place in the room nearly a year ago.
“I know this is probably a delicate thing to say, especially in this room, but I need to say this. If you’re not willing to die for what you believe in, you’re not ready to live. You’re not ready to live,” Clark said to a chorus of “amens.” She continued:
“So when I stand here, look, I don’t care how big you are. I really don’t care how tall you are. I don’t care what you’re packing. I got something better to do. OK?”
Clark was installed in January to fill Pinckney’s big shoes. She focuses on healing, preaching and tending to spirits, something some parishioners said they weren’t getting enough of in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, amid security concerns and a dispute over how the money donated to Emanuel should be spent.
The challenges facing her church are daunting. But Emanuel — a five-minute walk from the harbor where 40 percent of North America’s enslaved Africans arrived in chains — was born in hostile territory. In that same harbor sits Fort Sumter, where South Carolinians in 1861 took their secessionist stand and ignited the Civil War.
Mother Emanuel, as the church is also known, the first of its denomination in the Deep South, holds a special place in the torrid racial history of Charleston. Its founding two centuries ago by free blacks who had chafed under the white-ruled Methodist Episcopal church was itself an exercise in resistance.
Then, in 1822, Charleston authorities discovered that one of Emanuel’s founders, freed slave Denmark Vesey, had planned what would have been the largest slave rebellion in American history. Vesey and more than 30 accused co-conspirators were hanged and the original church burned to the ground. But the congregation rebuilt, and endured, and in the 20th century, Emanuel’s leaders served on the front lines of the struggle for civil rights.
Roof, a 21-year-old who had schooled himself in white supremacy on the internet, is not from Charleston. He lived in Columbia, S.C., a city filled with AME and other black churches, which also dot the countryside along the two-hour drive between the cities. Roof drove past them all and walked into Emanuel, a church that embodies African-American dignity, pride and faith.
Roof did not kill those things.
That was obvious the first Sunday after the massacre, when the pews filled with congregants who felt their faith overpower the hatred that had left nine of them dead four days before.
Asked about the welcoming spirit of Bible study, and the seeming lack of fear at the scene of a mass murder, Glee, of Emanuel’s board of trustees, said no one should be surprised.
“Tragedies happen to black people since the history of black people in this country,” he said. “So terrorism to black people isn’t new. It’s old. It’s new to white people. But it’s not new to black people.”
At a bond hearing two days after the massacre, family members of the victims gathered in a courtroom where Roof appeared onscreen from jail via closed-circuit TV. As sympathy from across the nation and the world flowed toward the families of those who died in what most recognized as a monstrous hate crime, the court itself for a moment seemed to discount the racist past that had led up to the case on the docket that morning.
Charleston County Magistrate James Gosnell, who had once used the “n” word in court to describe black people, spoke from the bench.
“We have victims, nine of them,” Gosnell said. “But we also have victims on the other side. There are victims on this young man’s side of the family. No one would have ever thrown them into the whirlwind of events that they have been thrown into.”
His remarks struck many as woundingly insensitive. At the time, many still wondered whether Roof’s family, which later expressed sorrow over the killings, had raised him to hold his supremacist beliefs.
Still, several of those closest to the Emanuel Nine took their opportunity to speak in court to forgive Roof. Their words, uttered in the earliest days of their grieving, shocked the nation. How could they forgive this man?
The Rev. Anthony Thompson, the husband of slain schoolteacher Myra Thompson — a newly minted pastor herself and the leader of Bible study on June 17 — only went to the hearing because his children wanted to be there. A corrections officer for 30 years before he went to seminary, Thompson had been to many a bond hearing before and had not planned to speak.
“But it was divine intervention. God just came to me and he said, ‘I have something to say,’ and he told me exactly what to do,” said Thompson, who pastors Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church, six blocks from Mother Emanuel. “Immediately after it was done I received peace.”
The peace Thompson received was “the first good thing” to follow his forgiveness of Roof.
“Then the flag came down,” he continued, referring to the symbol of the Confederacy and the institution of slavery it fought to preserve that still flew above the Statehouse grounds. After decades of failed bills and protests, the South Carolina Legislature finally sent the flag to a museum.
More happened, Thompson said: “Whites and blacks — regardless of what creed, denomination, religion or the color of your skin — they pretty much came together and unified and wanted to know what could they do to help,” he said. “That’s something that never happened in Charleston, S.C. That was a good thing.”
Herb Frazier, a former reporter who worked for South Carolina’s two largest newspapers, doesn’t doubt the authenticity of these feelings among whites. With Powers, the historian, and South Carolina poet laureate Marjory Wentworth, who is white, Frazier wrote the newly released book, “We Are Charleston,” about the city’s racial history and its response to the violence at Mother Emanuel.
But Frazier, who grew up in Mother Emanuel, also sees how that forgiveness played into Charleston’s fear of its black citizens. The cynic in him, he said, heard a collective sigh among whites, and maybe even some blacks: “Now we don’t have to be afraid of the black people burning down the Holy City.”
Thompson is not naive. Maybe the forgiveness offered by him and other relatives of the Emanuel Nine did assuage white fears of black people grounded in the racist history of his city and country. But more importantly, he said, it set off a godly chain of events.
He offered evidence not just in the form of his own peace of mind, or the Confederate flag coming down, but from the day in February when he was asked to speak at the Bible study at Christ Church, a predominantly white congregation near Charleston, on affluent Sullivan’s Island.
He talked about God, and he talked about racism. And afterward, he said, a white mother stood, her children beside her.
“She said, ‘Reverend Thompson, when I heard about you and people forgiving this young man, I had to take a look at myself. And I had to admit that I was a racist.’ And she said, ‘I saw it in my family. I saw it in my grandparents, I saw it in my parents. My friends were racist.’ And she said, ‘When I got older I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t do anything about it.’”
Her words astounded him. “I’ve never heard a white person say that before, and not in Charleston, S.C.” He asked the congregants to give glory to God for the testimony they had just heard. And they did. But then more white people stood up. Like the woman, they talked about growing up in racist families. They confessed their own racism, and repented.
“They didn’t want to be like that anymore,” Thompson said. “So there’s hope. There’s hope. Believe me.”
The trip home
The day of the shooting at Mother Emanuel, an interracial group of Charleston churchgoers was in Memphis, touring the Lorraine Motel, the site where white supremacist James Earl Ray killed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
On the bus that night, as the group headed toward Montgomery, Ala., the next stop on its civil rights tour of the South, calls came from home about the massacre at Emanuel. The Rev. Nelson Rivers III, the black pastor who had organized the trip, caught the next flight to Charleston. So did two other clergy on the trip, Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Charleston’s landmark synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, and the Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, the leader of Charleston’s liberal, mostly white Circular Congregational Church.
Rivers had invited them and their congregants on the tour, which included the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where police beat those marching for voting rights, and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which the Ku Klux Klan bombed in 1963, killing four black girls.
When the Charleston tourists heard the news about Emanuel, their journey through history suddenly didn’t feel like history anymore. “We were in the Lorraine Motel,” Rutledge said. “And then the very next day we were here on the street, and it felt like it went from black-and-white to color. And it was the same story. And a lot of us went, ‘Oh, this story isn’t finished.’”
Back in Charleston, Rutledge helped the city grieve. He was part of, and a witness to, the city’s coming together, black and white, to reject Roof’s hatred. The vigils were so crowded he could not even get into one at a church at which he was invited to speak. To memorialize the Emanuel Nine, 15,000 people formed a human chain that stretched for two miles, and across the bridge that connects Charleston to neighboring Mount Pleasant.
“I want to honor that,” he said, as the first anniversary of the shooting approached.
But at the same time, Rutledge worries that the story of Charleston’s grace in the aftermath of last year’s horror will make it easier for the city to avoid confronting the consequences of the slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and the still persistent inequalities that afford whites so much more opportunity than blacks.
Charleston is a beautiful, historic, polite city, with a booming tourist sector that carries well-heeled visitors through its cobblestone streets in horse-drawn carriages.
“There is a very strong push to make the story nice, to make it pleasant, and to stress the parts of the story that are about everyone holding hands on the bridge,” he said. “But that was one evening. And now, almost a year on, the schools are just as segregated as ever. The black community is as profiled as ever.”
In North Charleston, a poorer city adjoining Charleston where blacks outnumber whites, many have long accused the city’s majority white police force of racial profiling. Less than two months before the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel, a white North Charleston police officer shot an unarmed black man in the back as he was running away.
Officer Michael Slager, who had pulled Walter Scott over because his brake light was out, said Scott had grabbed his Taser and threatened him. But a video taken by a bystander contradicted that account.
Slager’s trial begins in October and a federal judge Tuesday (June 7) said Roof’s will begin in November. In both cases, said the Rev. Joseph Darby, the former vice president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP and a presiding elder in the AME church, quick action against both suspects calmed the black community.
“But there have been other things in Charleston that have not been videotaped,” he added. “They have not been resolved. They’re still festering.”
Marjory Wentworth, the poet laureate of South Carolina, wrote “Holy City” days after the shooting at Mother Emanuel. In verses that are as much prayer as poem, she names each of the Emanuel Nine: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons Sr. and Myra Thompson.
“They are not alone,” she writes. “As bells in the spires call across the wounded Charleston sky, we close our eyes and listen to the same stillness ringing in our hearts, holding on to one another, like brothers, like sisters, because we know that wherever there is love, there is God.”
Wentworth, a white woman who joined Rutledge’s Circular Church in part for its commitment to racial equality, talks and writes about race more easily than many other whites. State officials invited her to write a poem for the second inauguration of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in January, as Wentworth had for the previous three gubernatorial inaugurations.
But it was cut from the program — for lack of time, she was told. Some South Carolinians believe the real reason was because of its references to slavery and a South Carolina “haunted by its past.”
Despite that episode, Wentworth feels hopeful for her city, in part because of a growing coalition of congregations known as the Charleston Area Justice Ministries, or CAJM. Asked what people or groups can help level the playing field for blacks, she and many other Charlestonians name the faith-based CAJM before they mention traditional civil rights organizations.
Formed in 2011 to lobby for the disadvantaged, CAJM is now a diverse group of 30 congregations, including black and white churches, a synagogue and a mosque. Each year it takes up a cause, researches the topic and then asks public officials to sign on to its policy recommendations. Critics call CAJM unnecessarily confrontational. But it has had successes. Charleston school officials, for example, added hundreds more slots to Charleston’s early childhood program after CAJM pushed publicly on the issue.
But even CAJM, until recently, had not dealt with racial prejudice as a cause in its own right, said Darby, a founder of the group who now presides over 32 AME churches south of Charleston. That changed, he continued, after the violence at Emanuel.
“Everybody finally said: ‘Yeah, we got a problem.’”
Melvin Graham is trying in his own way to address the problem.
The brother of Cynthia Graham Hurd, a librarian killed at the Bible study almost a year ago, Graham and his siblings last month founded a nonprofit in their sister’s name. To honor her commitment to literacy, it will donate books to underserved Charleston children, a disproportionate number of whom are black.
To get the foundation started, the family donated $5,000 and a stack of the children’s classic “The Giving Tree.” It tells the story of a selfless tree that sacrificed its leaves, limbs and trunk for a boy.
“Even when the tree had nothing to give but just a stump, it found a way to give. That’s Cynthia. Even in death, she’s still giving,” Graham said, taking comfort in the good the foundation will do for children who have reaped little of Charleston’s prosperity.
The foundation is Graham’s public response to the racial hatred that drove a young man to kill his sister.
Privately, however, he struggles mightily, not only with grief, but with the idea that he is supposed to forgive what happened at Emanuel last year. “It shook me to the very core of what I believe as a Christian,” said Graham, a deacon in a Baptist church north of Charleston.
“I’ve stood in front of the congregation many times, spoken about God and forgiveness and love and mercy and all the good things,” Graham said. “But it’s hard to forgive somebody who made a conscious decision to do something like this.”
There is one thing, though, that Graham said he knows with certainty: God will forgive Dylann Roof if Roof asks.
“I hope that he will repent and ask God for forgiveness,” Graham said. “And when I get to heaven, maybe he and Cynthia will be standing side by side.”
Lauren Markoe covered government and features as a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years before joining the Religion News Service staff as a national correspondent in 2011. She previously was Washington correspondent for The State (Columbia, S.C.)