‘We are not broken’: Charleston churchgoers find strength after tragedy at Mother Emanuel

Charleston, S.C. — Mother Emanuel members sat in the middle pews, guests on the outer pews.

Ushers dressed in black suits passed out fans and water to congregants and guests. The heat was in those first few minutes, a powerful unifier—an easier subject for us to broach than what really brought so many of us to Mother Emanuel this Sunday morning.

Up in front, Sen. Tim Scott greeted churchgoers. Minutes later, Gov. Nikki Haley entered through a side door and sat down in the pews reserved for members.

Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum sat in the back with church guests.

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The organist began to play “Amazing Grace” and chatter in Emanuel subsided—for the time being.

The choir began. “You are a source of my strength,” they sang. “You are the strength of my life,” members of the church joined them. “I lift my hands in total praise of you.”

The music replaced talk of heat. The church melded together in song.

Rev. John Gillison, who opened the service, acknowledged the nine Mother Emanuel churchgoers who were shot and killed Wednesday without surrendering to grief. He offered solace. “They’ve gone on before us, but we are behind them,” he assured the congregation. “And when we get there, what a time it will be.”

The crowd roared as they were brought to their feet.

Another song.

“You don’t worry,” sang the choir soloist dressed in white. “If you lean on me, I won’t let you fall.”

The church was on their feet once again. Hands waved in the air.

“Hallelujah” was heard from every corner of the packed church.

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“Many of our hearts are broken, many are still shedding tears,” said Rev. Norvel Goff, who led the service Sunday morning. “But I know a man who can answer all our questions,” he said reassuring the mourners.

The church responded with vigorous clapping, cheers and hallelujahs to let the Reverend know they heard his call.

The mood shifted dramatically during “alter call,” the part of the service where churchgoers were encouraged to walk up front by the pulpit and pray.

An elderly black man walked away from alter call weeping, crying out. Members gathered around him, a couple held him up, and a couple of others held him in their arms, the sweltering heat of the Mother Emanuel Church an afterthought.

Another member of the church held onto the pew for support as she sat down, stricken by grief. Her cries were loud, her pain was physical. A crowd of women appeared around her. They held her up. One woman stood above, fanning her.

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The cries of mourners were heard all over the church—through music, through clapping, through the reassuring words of Reverend Goff.

“Our spirit may be crushed,” said the Reverend. “But we are not broken.”

In his message to the church he made sure everyone knew that, as a people with faith, forgiveness is not unusual.

Goff did not imply the situation had resolved itself, though. “We’re going to pursue justice, and we’re going to hold elected officials accountable,” he said.

“The only way for evil to triumph,” said the Reverend, “is if good people sit down.”

Goff encouraged those inside the church—and by extension those listening on loudspeakers outside the church, those watching the livestream, or watching coverage on their TV sets—to stand up.