CHARLESTON, S.C. — The doors were guarded by six police officers searching bags. Another officer stood by the pulpit. Bullet holes were still visible downstairs. There was a black cloth where pastor Clementa Pinckney should have been.
“This is the day that the Lord has made,” the Rev. Norvell Goff began. “Let us rejoice.”
The members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church stood and cheered.
They were Christians doing what they do every week. They were African-Americans making a statement to a racist killer.
“The doors are open at Emanuel this Sunday,” said Goff, his voice rising. “Sending a message to every demon in Hell and on Earth: no weapon — no weapon! — no weapon formed against us shall prosper!”
Nine members of Charleston’s most celebrated black church were slain in its basement on Wednesday night, allegedly shot dead by a white supremacist. Four days later their friends and relatives came back, joined in emotional worship by hundreds of others, black and white, from around South Carolina and across the country.
Mother Emanuel was burned in 1822, banned in 1834, destroyed by an earthquake in 1886. Vincent Bell, a Pepsi salesman who brought his two daughters, said the church was not going to allow itself to be ruined by accused gunman Dylann Storm Roof.
“The church shutting down would have let him win,” said Bell, 39. “He’s not going to win.”
The Republican state governor, Nikki Haley, and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott sat in the front pew with the city’s Democratic mayor, Joe Riley. Near the rear of the sanctuary, a stately room with wood columns and a white barrel roof, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum sat next to prominent black protester DeRay Mckesson.
Gloria Moore sat in the balcony in a white suit and church hat, fanning herself in the overpowering heat and shouting praise. She had driven an hour from a small South Carolina town. Her daughter, she said, had tried to talk her out of coming.
“I said I’m not worried,” said Moore, 56, who works in government finance. “God has got us covered.”
Harold Washington, an Emanuel member for 50 years, was in the building for a meeting on Wednesday night. He left less than an hour before his friends were killed. He had no reservations about returning.
“I’m very sorry that we had nine of our members die,” he said. “But God did not kill the spirit. The spirit is still strong.”
The crowd was joyous and despondent, sometimes at once. When a member of the choir performed a rousing rendition of the gospel song “Jesus Said You Can Lean on Me,” accompanied by a drummer and a trumpeter, the dancing on the balcony shook the floorboards. But on the main floor, where church members were seated, dozens stayed silent and solemn.
Goff called on the congregation to kneel at the altar. A woman staggered away, crying and holding the hand of a little girl. A pastor put his hand on the back of a disconsolate man.
“I am reminded this morning about the freshness of death; comes like a thief in the night,” said Goff, interim pastor in the wake of Pinckney’s slaying. “Many of our hearts are breaking. Many of us are still shedding tears.”
“It has been tough. It’s been rough,” he said. “Some of us have been downright angry. But through it all, God has sustained us and has encouraged us.”
Charleston’s official response to the murders has emphasized faith and forgiveness over the delicate politics of race, guns and the memory of the Civil War. The day after hundreds of people marched to the city’s Confederate Museum, chanting “black lives matter” and denouncing white supremacy and the Confederate flag, Goff said the focus should remain on the families of the victims — for now.
“Don’t get it twisted,” Goff said. “We’re going to pursue justice, and we’re going to be vigilant, and we’re going to hold our elected officials and others accountable.”
Charleston’s other churches rang their bells in unison over nine minutes beginning at 10 a.m. Dozens of people, mostly white, stood outside Mother Emanuel in 34C heat to listen to the service over a loudspeaker. When churchgoers began to leave the sweltering building, the people near the front door sang “Amazing Grace.”
Washington sat through the service in anger and sadness. By the time he walked out, he felt “pretty good.”
Roof, he decided, had already failed.