Faith, love and dignity fill up Charleston's grieving church
Published 22/06/2015 | 02:30
At the front of the packed sanctuary of Charleston's historic Emanuel church, just one chair stood empty, draped in black cloth. It was the seat of Rev Clementa Pinckney, the pastor who should have been leading his flock for the Father's Day service.
But the father-of-two was one of nine black members of the South's oldest African-American congregation slaughtered during Bible study last week by a young white supremacist, who later told police that he wanted to start a race war.
The Sunday morning service - a celebration of faith, love, dignity, and courage - was an emotionally charged demonstration that Dylann Roof had failed in his warped mission.
"The Devil was trying to take charge but thanks be to God, the Devil can't take control of your church," said Rev Norvel Goff, who was taking the place of his murdered friend. "The Devil can't take control of your people."
The yellow police tape had earlier been removed as the church was restored to its rightful role as a place of worship, rather than a crime scene.
Uniformed officers were stationed inside the church as worshippers gathered beneath the vaulted barrel roof and large, stained-glass windows with images of praying hands, crosses and Bible scriptures.
In the sweltering heat of South Carolina, they wafted fans and orders of service to try to keep cool, while thousands more listened outside via loudspeakers.
"I want you to know that the doors of Mother Emanuel are open," said Rev Goff. "It sends a message to every demon in Hell and on Earth.
"It's been tough, it's been rough, some have been downright angry, but through it all God has sustained us and encouraged us. Lots of people expected us to break out in a riot, but they didn't know us, they don't know our faith."
The atmosphere of defiance, resilience, hope and forgiveness was mixed with grief and sorrow as parishioners who had lost family and friends sang, danced and prayed but also sobbed and hugged each other.
For the family of Cynthia Hurd, the service was especially poignant as it marked what should have been her 55th birthday. Nonetheless, it was not a day for sorrow, her relatives insisted.
"I feel joy that she is celebrating with the Lord," said her brother, Michael Graham. "She is in the company of God. That gives us joy."
The worshippers gathered a day after Roof's racist hate-filled "manifesto" emerged. The rant was accompanied by pictures of the 21-year-old with the Confederate flag of the pro-slavery Southern states in the Civil War.
His rampage has reignited calls for the removal of the battle standard of the South that still flies outside the South Carolina state capitol. (© Daily Telegraph, London)