Hundreds of worshippers flooded the sweltering aisles of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Sunday morning as it opened for the first time since a young man walked into a Bible study meeting, sat for an hour and then shot nine of the attendees, including the church’s charismatic pastor.
During the two-hour service, Rev. Norvel Goff and other religious leaders grappled with how evil could have walked into the house of God and cut down people so dedicated to their faith.
“There they were in the House of the Lord, studying the word,” a prayer leader said. “But the devil also entered. And the devil tried to take charge.”
He boomed: “But the devil can’t take charge of your church!”
Goff said reopening the church so quickly after the attack “sent a message to every demon in hell.”
The faithful, watched over by at least 10 uniformed police officers, fanned themselves to attempt to bat away the stifling heat. Some were crying as they visited the altar of the dark, wood-paneled church.
Goff thanked law enforcement for finding the perpetrator of the crime so quickly and for guarding them as they prayed.
“A lot of folks expected us to do something strange and to break out in a riot. Well, they just don’t know us,” Goff said. “We are a people of faith.”
Goff also teased the media for seeming surprised that family members of the victims told Dylann Roof that they forgave him at his bond hearing earlier this week. “If you knew our daddy, you would know,” Goff said, referring to God.
Many were mourning their pastor, Clementa Pinckney, also a state senator, who was among the nine killed Wednesday night.
Marsha Spencer, a church member for more than 20 years, said she remembers how Pinckney, who was very tall, would hunch over when he was listening to his parishioners speak. She recalled his sense of fun, too: One Halloween, he dressed up as Jimi Hendrix.
She said she was not surprised that Pinckney was among the dead on Wednesday.
“Where else would he be? He was our shepherd, and they were his flock, and he would have done anything to protect them,” she said.
Church members said they were relieved that “Mother Emanuel” was open again so quickly, and that they don’t want to bolt the doors just because of the actions of one person.
“I was looking forward to it being open because I was looking forward to going to church,” said Velma Washington, who was related to three of the victims shot last Wednesday. “Everybody has to join together as one.”
Geraldine Moultine, who attends a different Charleston church, said she showed up to offer support. “At least they can have a little bit of closure,” she said.