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Charleston church reopens in moving service as congregation mourns

By RICHARD FAUSSET and JOHN ELIGON, New York Times

The Rev. Norvel Goff speaks during a service at the Emanuel AME Church four days after a mass shooting that claimed the lives of its pastor and eight others on Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C.
The Rev. Norvel Goff speaks during a service at the Emanuel AME Church four days after a mass shooting that claimed the lives of its pastor and eight others on Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. AP

This city, famous for its many houses of worship, awoke on Sunday with a collective plan to mourn and pray and honor the nine black churchgoers killed here in what authorities said was a racist attack by a white gunman.

Worship normally contained within church walls spilled into the streets. On Marion Square, a grassy area a block from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of Wednesday’s massacre, large banners hung from the buildings.

“With Love to Our Emanuel Neighbors,” read one.

“Holy City . . . . Let Us Be the Example of Love That Conquers Evil,” read another.

A diverse gathering of mourners crowded beneath Emanuel’s vaulted barrel roof on Sunday morning for the first service there since the shooting.

The crowd included Gov. Nikki R. Haley and the conservative presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who sat toward the back of the sanctuary next to DeRay McKesson, the liberal activist.

The service opened with an emotional hymn as nearly the entire congregation stood and sang “You are the source of my strength, you are the strength of my life,” rounded out with a big “Amen” that was followed by a standing ovation.

In the opening prayer, one of the ministers said that while people were still asking why, “Those of us who know Jesus, we can look through the window of our faith and we see hope, we see light.”

An interdenominational congregation, Awaken Church, had planned to hold a prayer and worship gathering on the square near the church at 10 a.m., and a half-hour earlier, worshipers had begun parking strollers and setting up camp chairs in the grass. They passed out programs with lyrics to some of the sturdiest of hymns: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art.”

The Roof family attended an early service Sunday at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in downtown Columbia. “They are shattered,” Bishop Herman Yoos told the congregation at a later service. “But their faith is strong.”

Bishop Yoos said he met with the family last week. The pastor read the names of the dead and asked for prayers for their families.

n front of Emanuel, throngs of reporters, cameramen and well-wishers milled about, yet the atmosphere was one of solemnity. Flowers, cards and banners continued to pile up in front, some of them pointedly political.

“Ms. Haley, Tear Down That Flag!” one hand-lettered sign proclaimed, a reference to the Confederate flag that flies in front of the state capitol in Columbia.

At around 9 a.m., Brandy Comer, 42, of nearby Mt. Pleasant and her husband Blake Comer, 47, who are white, walked toward Emanuel, dressed casually for the searing heat. Ms. Comer carried a bright clutch of tulips to add to the pile.

Ms. Comer said she was deeply moved by the families of the victims who, in forgiving the suspect, had served as the highest of exemplars of the New Testament command to love your enemy. She wondered if she would have been able to do the same if her family had been harmed.

“We have kids,” she said. “And I don’t know If I could have gone in that direction.”

At 10 a.m., church bells began to toll. Nine minutes passed, one minute for each victim. Hundreds of people, most of them white, had gathered in Marion Square by that time, all of them in silence but for the chattering of some children.

Brandon Bowers, a white man who is the lead pastor of Awaken Church, spoke from a small white tent. “As a pastor in this city, a husband and a father to two boys and two girls, my heart broke in grief and disbelief,” he said.

“What the enemy intended for evil, God is using for good,” he said. “We are here to pray for the healing that needs to come.”

Jermaine Watkins, a teaching pastor at Journey Church, and an African-American, spoke next, declaring that the gathering showed that “what unites us is stronger than what divides us.” He said that he could think of no city that would have responded with the spirit of unity that Charleston had displayed. Then he hammered out a spoken refrain that underscored the community’s refusal to be divided.

“To hatred, we say no way, not today,” Mr. Watkins said. “To racism, we say no way, not today. To division, we say no way, not today. To reconciliation, we say yes. To loss of hope, we say no way, not today. To a racial war, we say no way, not today. To racial fear, we say no way, not today. Charleston, together, we say no way, not today.”

In New York City, at the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, Pastor Michael A. Walrond Jr. spoke in somber tones about the shooting to worshipers and tourists, who filled the church to its balcony.

Mr. Walrond said he has visited Charleston every year since 1998 because it forces him to remember history and his own identity. This month, 193 years ago, he noted, Denmark Vesey, one of the co-founders of Emanuel A.M.E., was hanged for plotting a slave revolt.

At 42, Mr. Walrond is barely a year older than the slain pastor of Emanuel and shares his political ambition. (Mr. Walrond ran for Congress in 2014 against Representative Charles Rangel.) Both are married fathers, although one did not live to see this Father’s Day.

Mr. Walrond said he had been so disheartened by the shooting that he had been unable to prepare a message to deliver.

Like so many incidents before it, he said, the shooting in Charleston was a result of a failure to acknowledge the brutal parts of American history, and the deeply ingrained ills that remain.

“Part of the problem why we continue to visit these moments is because there is of a lack of honesty about how we got here,” he said. “Racism, bigotry, prejudice and hatred are elements woven into the fabric of this country.

“There can be no healing in this land if we are not honest about who we are,” he said.

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Richard Fausset and John Eligon reported from Charleston, S.C. Ashley Southall contributed reporting from New York and Frances Robles from Columbia, S.C.

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