When Angela Brown saw the Facebook post about a shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, her mind immediately leapt to her aunt. Whenever the doors to Emanuel were open to its flock, Ethel Lance was there.
“This was her home,” said her niece, standing in the shadow of its soaring spire, tears streaming down her face.
So many people felt that way about “Mother” Emanuel.
Founded in 1818 by a free black shoemaker, the church stood as a beacon in a port city through which many legions of Africans passed on their way to bondage across the growing nation. Torched by angry whites after one of its organizers led a failed slave revolt, Emanuel rose from the ashes to serve as a stop on the Underground Railroad, even as state leaders banned all black churches and forced the congregation itself underground.
The current brick Gothic revival edifice, completed in 1891 to replace an earlier building heavily damaged in an earthquake, was a mandatory stop for the likes of Booker T. Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Still, Emanuel was not just a church for the black community.
And so, when a young white man wearing a stained gray sweat shirt and a fanny pack walked into the Bible study on July 17 and asked for the minister, no one thought twice. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s senior pastor, even invited the stranger to take the seat beside him.
“He wanted him to feel at home, comfortable,” says Sylvia Johnson, the minister’s cousin. “Nothing to be fearful of. This is the house of the Lord, and you are welcome.”
But the visitor had not come to worship or to commune. Tempered by fire, its faith unshaken by temblors, Mother Emanuel was about to face perhaps its greatest test.
“Is something missing from your life?” the church website asks under the Bible Study listing in “Notices and Announcements.” “If you have a desire to learn more about God, then join us on Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m. in the lower level of the church. We look forward to seeing you!”
DePayne Middleton-Doctor was a deeply spiritual woman who led the weekly classes at Mother Emanuel. At 49, the mother of four was juggling a new job as a college enrollment counselor along with caring for four daughters. But no matter how busy the days got, Doctor always made time for her faith — and June 17 was an especially important moment in her journey with God.
Already licensed as a deacon at a Baptist church, Doctor had begun attending Emanuel in January — and on this night Bible study was postponed for a quarterly church business meeting that saw Doctor licensed to minister at the church. The presiding elder, the Rev. Norvel Goff, asked Doctor to stand before the 50 or so people gathered. She presented her Bible, hymnal and a church handbook, and Goff signed them with a stamp of approval.
The meeting lasted about an hour and a half, and then parishioners mingled during a 10-minute break. Doctor texted her eldest daughter, 19-year-old Gracyn, to wish her well on her first day on the job at a local retail store.
Most of those gathered for the business meeting did not stay for Bible study. Willi Glee, a church member going back decades, was going to attend but decided to pass because he hadn’t eaten all day. Before he left, one of the part-time ministers at the church approached.
“I need to give you a hug,” Sharonda Coleman-Singleton said, taking him into a big embrace. Glee would never know what prompted the gesture.
At 7:30, he left. Not long after, the wooden door at the back of the church opened, and in walked Dylann Storm Roof.
Roof had spent much of the last few weeks guzzling vodka in a haze of cigarette smoke. Bouncing back and forth between his dad’s home in Columbia, South Carolina, and the place his mother and her boyfriend shared in nearby Lexington, his life seemed to be slowly unraveling.
In February, he was arrested at a Columbia shopping mall on a misdemeanor drug charge. He was picked up again for trespassing at the mall, despite being banned.
About a month ago, Roof reached out to Joseph Meek Jr., a middle school chum. Meek said the formerly laid-back Roof had begun ranting about black people, and how “someone needed to do something about it for the white race.” He made vague references to a “plan” he was hatching. On his Facebook profile, Roof posted a photo of himself wearing a jacket adorned with the flags of the now defunct white-supremacist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia.
When Roof turned 21 in April, he used the money his parents had given him to buy himself a present — a .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol with a laser sight. Disturbed by his friend’s behavior, Meek at one point took the gun and hid it, only to give it back.
On the morning of June 17, Meek awoke to find Roof in front of his mobile home, asleep in his car. They talked about what they were going to do that day. Meek, his girlfriend and brother were going to the lake. Roof, who didn’t like the outdoors, said he’d drive them on his way to the movies. He had a $20 gift card, and he told them he planned on catching the summer blockbuster, “Jurassic World.”
They said their goodbyes, and Meek figured he’d see Roof later that night.
Instead, 120 miles away, a security camera at Emanuel captured the image of a slender man with a bowl haircut entering the fellowship hall.
The time stamp read 8:16 p.m.
In addition to Doctor and Pinckney, 10 others had gathered around a white-clothed table to study the New Testament book of Mark.
There was the Rev. Coleman-Singleton, 45, a former college track star turned girls track coach at a high school where she also worked as a speech pathologist. Coleman-Singleton was fond of urging just about anyone who didn’t go to church to start.
“God sees everything you do,” she often told her daughter’s friend, Maurice Coakley.
There was Cynthia Hurd, a 31-year employee of the city’s library system. Due to turn 55 in days, the avid gardener had recently told her brother she needed to start making plans for retirement.
Ethel Lance, 70, had been an Emanuel member most of her life. After retiring about five years ago from her housekeeping job at a performing arts center, Lance — mother of five, grandmother to seven and great-grandmother to four — signed on as church sexton, spending nearly every day helping to keep the historic building clean.
Another old faithful was Susie Jackson, 87, who’d sung soprano in the church choir for six decades and who belted out her favorite hymn, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” in the kitchen while preparing her famous “crazy bean soup.” She loved to play the slot machines and was looking forward to a church-sponsored bus trip to Chicago.
Also there were Jackson’s niece, Felecia Sanders; Sanders’ 26-year-old son, Tywanza, a barber who had graduated college last year after studying business; and Sanders’ 5-year-old granddaughter.
For about an hour, they went about their work. The week’s lesson was to center on Mark’s chapter four, a series of parables meant to further spread the teachings of Jesus and help his flock understand the power of God. The chapter ends with Jesus and his disciples on a boat, facing a suddenly stormy and menacing sea. As his disciples worry about the dangers ahead, Jesus calms the winds and stills the waters.
“And he said unto them, why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?”
It is a verse rooted in the power of clinging to one’s convictions in the face of adversity.
Around 8:50 p.m., as Maurice Coakley would later recall, Coleman-Singleton texted her daughter, Leslie. She told her she loved her.
At some point, Roof stood and pulled out his pistol.
Tywanza Sanders, the one in the room closest to Roof’s age, attempted to stop him.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said. “You don’t have to do this.”
“You rape our women. And you’re taking over the country. I have to do this,” the gunman replied.
Felecia Sanders, one of three survivors, recounted the events later that night to Sylvia Johnson, Pinckney’s cousin. Her son, she told Johnson, was shot attempting to shield his great-aunt, Jackson. Sanders herself pushed her granddaughter to the floor, lay on top of her and told her to play dead.
As gunshots echoed off the linoleum floor, parishioner Polly Sheppard prayed to God for salvation. And then, suddenly, the shooting stopped.
Roof told Sheppard that he was “letting her live so she could tell what happened,” the 70-year-old would later share with her niece, Latrice Daniels. With that, Roof walked out.
On the floor around Sheppard’s feet, eight lay dead: Tywanza Sanders, Doctor, Coleman-Singleton, Hurd, Jackson, Lance, parishioner Myra Thompson, 59, and Pinckney, who in addition to serving his church was a state legislator for 19 years. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74, a retired minister who’d became a regular attendee at Emanuel, died at the hospital.
Coakley was supposed to meet Coleman-Singleton’s daughter, Leslie, that night but couldn’t reach her. Sometime after 9, he got a call.
“My mama!” she screamed into the phone. “My mama!”
Family members began gathering at a hotel around the corner from the church. Around midnight, Sylvia Johnson saw Felecia Sanders. She couldn’t tell at first because of the dark color, but she realized that the front of Sanders’ black dress was caked with blood.
“That’s my son’s blood,” her friend said numbly.
After a moment, a stunned Sanders spoke again.
“He was a good boy.”
As investigators combed the scene for clues, bouquets and cards began piling up outside the whitewashed church. Groups gathered to cry and pray and try to fathom how this could have happened in their city, to this beloved institution.
“Mother Emanuel,” Alonza Washington, a Vietnam veteran and pastor of nearby Wallingford Presbyterian, said as he stared at the growing mound of flowers. “Great legacy, history. About justice and righteousness.”
The church had suffered through many tragedies. But this, he said, seemed somehow different.
“It has shaken the fabric of human nature and this nation and world, and certainly the foundation of the church,” he said. “But it’s going to stand. A great evil act has been done here, but I pray _ and we pray and hope _ that the lives will be a sacrifice for some good.”
Roof was in custody within 13 hours of the shootings. On June 19, he appeared before a county magistrate in a North Charleston courtroom to have bond set. About four dozen people — relatives of the dead among them — turned out to see the man who, in the words of Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, had committed this act of “pure, pure concentrated evil.”
The courtroom took on the air of a church service, with the grieving passing tissue boxes like collection plates.
The assembled could see Roof _ clad in a baggy, striped jumpsuit, his hands cuffed behind his back _ over a closed-circuit television. He could not see the anguished crowd but could hear them.
Roof’s blue eyes stared blankly ahead as one disembodied voice after another shared with him the lessons they’d learned at Emanuel, and from their lost loved ones. They had been taught to forgive those who trespass against them; to hate the sin, but love the sinner.
Roof lowered his head slightly when Nadine Collier, Lance’s daughter, tearfully offered her forgiveness.
“You took something very precious away from me,” she said, choking back her tears. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”
Anthony Thompson, Myra’s widower, pleaded with Roof to “take this opportunity to repent.”
“Confess,” he said. “Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he … can change your ways, no matter what happened to you. And you’ll be OK.”
Then it was Felecia Sanders’ turn to once again face the man who had brought her world crashing down. Clutching a tissue in her hand, she reminded Roof how she and the others had “welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” and how he had repaid that kindness.
“You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know,” she said as he stood, eyes downcast. “Every fiber in my body hurts … and I’ll never be the same.”
Tywanza was not just her son, she told Roof. He was “my hero.”
Unlike the others, Sanders did not offer him her explicit forgiveness. But she reminded him how “we enjoyed you” for that brief time in their Mother Emanuel, their refuge, their home. “May God have mercy on you.”
Breed, an AP national writer, reported from Charleston; Lush reported from St. Petersburg, Fla. Other contributors include Jeffrey Collins and Phillip Lucas in Charleston, and Mitch Weiss in Columbia, South Carolina.