CHARLESTON, S.C. — An iconic black church held an emotionally charged service Sunday as its flock, this city and the nation continued a painful healing process four days after a white gunman’s rampage left nine worshipers dead.
Church bells tolled across the city at 10 a.m. in memory of the victims of Dylann Roof, 21, who opened fire Wednesday night on a Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Events to show solidarity with the grieving church were planned throughout Charleston and the nation Sunday.
The church’s pastor and state senator, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was among those killed Wednesday. On this hot Sunday, his church’s service drew a packed house that included government and community leaders from across the state, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and her family.
The Rev. Norvel Goff led off his sermon by thanking law enforcement — “I don’t have a problem doing it” — for pursuing and arresting Roof, and for providing additional security at the church.
“A lot of people expected us to do something strange and to break out in a riot,” said Goff, the church’s interim pastor until a successor for Pinckney is chosen. “Well they just don’t know us. We are people of faith.”
He said the while political differences exist, now was the time to think of the families of the victims. And he found inspiration in a Biblical verse from Isaiah: “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper.”
“The doors are open at Emanual this Sunday, sending a message to every demon in Hell and on Earth that no weapon, no weapon… shall prosper!” Goff roared to cheers.
Goff also provided moments of levity that drew warm applause. He promised to keep his remarks short, acknowledging the summer heat, but warned that if he saw people dozing off “I will start with Genesis… and read slowly!”
Earlier, the Rev. John Gillison told the crowd that those gathered looked forward to reuniting with the victims in heaven.
“We ask that (God) would guide the families that have been victimized,” he said. “The devil was trying to take charge but thanks be to God, the devil can’t take control of your church. The devil can’t take control of your people.”
The temperature in Emanuel AME steadily rose even before the service, as people squeezed into seats and quietly greeted one another. Many used fans handed out by church ushers to blow air at their faces.
At one point, paramedics entered the sanctuary and attended to a middle aged woman drenched in sweat and hunched over.
Security at the church was tight with several Charleston County deputies guarding the doors. A man loudly announced, “No bags, no cameras, and no water bottles.”
Clarissa Jackson, 51, of Chesapeake, Va., grew up in Charleston and lined up almost two hours before Emanuel’s service.
“I wanted to come early because I wanted to beat the crowd, take pictures and show some love,” Jackson said. “I just want to support. I know God doesn’t stop and I came to worship with them.”
Around 8 a.m., people began entering the sanctuary with men and women spilt into two lines. Deputies wearing bright blue gloves searched women’s purses and turned away anyone with personal cameras and signs.
Large stained glass windows with images of praying hands, crosses and bible scriptures lined the walls. Pews in the middle of the church were reserved for parishioners of Emanuel AME while members of the public sat in pews on the right and left.
Linda McCone, 64, of Dunnellon, Fla., drove six and a half hours on Saturday to come to the service. “I want to be in solidarity with the people,” she said. “We need to respect each other’s religion.”
McCone attends a different denomination Christian church in Florida and said she grew up in the AME tradition.
She said she expected to experience an emotional service filled with crying, signing, and praising.
“There’s no limit to expression in the AME church,” she said, adding that she had been crying since she heard of Wednesday’s attack.
Funeral plans have been set for Pinckney, who will be laid to rest Friday at St. James AME Church in Marion, S.C.. Prior to the burial, there will be several days to honor the lawmaker and spiritual leader.