CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) – Members of a historic black church worshipped at their sanctuary Sunday for the first time since a gunman opened fire at a Bible study, killing nine people, and uniformed police officers stood among the congregation as a measure of added security.
The service started with a message of love, recovery and healing, which will no doubt reverberate throughout churches across the country.
“We still believe that prayer changes things. Can I get a witness?” the Rev. Norvel Goff said. The congregated responded with a rousing “Yes.”
“But prayer not only changes things, it changes us,” Goff said.
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Sunday morning marked the first service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church since Dylann Roof, 21, sat among a Bible study group and opened fire after saying that he targeted them because they were black, authorities said. Among the nine killed was the church pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator.
Events to show solidarity are planned throughout the city and beyond. At 10 a.m. EDT, church bells rang throughout downtown this “Holy City” – which garnered the nickname because of the numerous churches here.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Mayor Joseph Riley attended the service at Emanuel.
Despite grim circumstances the congregation has been faced with, the welcoming spirit Roof exploited before the shooting is still alive, church members said.
“I think just because of what people have gone through emotions are definitely heightened, not just in Charleston but with anyone going to church because it is such a sacred place, it is such a safe place,” Shae Erdos, 29, said after a multiracial group of women sang “Amazing Grace” outside the church Saturday afternoon.
“To have something like that completely shattered by such evil – I think it will be in the back of everyone’s heads, really,” Erdos said. Erdos was planning on attending Sunday service in nearby Mount Pleasant.
The suburb is connected to Charleston by the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, where people are expected to join hands in solidarity Sunday evening. The bridge’s namesake is a former state lawmaker and a vocal Confederate flag supporter.
Roof had been photographed with the flag several times before the shooting.
Unity Church of Charleston the Rev. Ed Kosak said delivering his own Sunday morning sermon would be emotionally taxing but he felt empowered by the strength and grace Emanuel members have shown – a demeanor he said has set the tone for religious leaders everywhere.
“I’ve gone into Sunday sermons before like when Virginia Tech happened, and when the Sikh shootings happened” Kosak said. The situation in Charleston may be harder to give a sermon on because it hits so close to home. But, Kosak said, “I am more ready than ever to speak to this tragedy in ways I didn’t think I could before.”
For the family of Cynthia Hurd, Sunday’s service will be especially poignant. Hurd, a longtime librarian, would have been celebrating her 55th birthday and was planning a trip to Virginia with her siblings.
“Sunday will not be a sad day for me; it will be a celebration for me. It will be a celebration for our family because our faith is being tested,” Hurd’s younger brother Malcolm Graham said Friday. “She was in the company of God trying to help somebody out. She was where she needed to be.”
Felicia Breeland, an 81-year-old lifelong Emanuel member, said she sang in the choir with Susie Jackson, 87, who was also fatally shot Wednesday.
“It’s going to be sad. She sits right on the front row, too,” Breeland said. “She had a very soft soprano voice. It was beautiful.”
Associated Press National Writer Allen Breed contributed to this report.