‘You are welcome:’ The night Emanuel opened its door to evil

‘You are welcome:’ The night Emanuel opened its door to evil
June 25
00:00 2015

In photo above: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina

Associated Press

CHARLESTON, S.C. — 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 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. Torched by angry whites after one organizer 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 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 walked into the Bible study Wednesday evening and asked for the minister, no one thought twice. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s senior pastor, invited the stranger to sit 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. “… 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 Doctor always made time for her faith.

Doctor had begun attending Emanuel in January _ and on this night Bible study was postponed for a church business meeting that saw Doctor licensed to minister there. She stood before 50 or so people as the presiding elder signed her Bible, hymnal and a church handbook.

Most left after the meeting. Before church member Willi Glee left, one of the part-time ministers approached.
“I need to give you a hug,” Sharonda Coleman-Singleton said.

Not long after Glee left, 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 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 and later for trespassing.
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.”

When Roof turned 21 in April, he used gift money from his parents to buy a .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol with a laser sight.

On Wednesday morning, Meek awoke to find Roof in front of his mobile home, asleep in his car. Meek, his girlfriend and brother decided to go to the lake. Roof said he’d drive them on his way to see the summer blockbuster, “Jurassic World.”
At 8:16 that evening, a security camera at Emanuel captured the image of a slender man with a bowl haircut entering the fellowship hall.


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 urged 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 _ became church sexton, helping keep the historic building clean.

Another old faithful was Susie Jackson, 87, who’d sung soprano in the 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.”

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.

The week’s lesson was to center on Mark’s chapter four. 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, 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?”


Around 8:50 p.m., as Maurice Coakley would later recall, Coleman-Singleton texted her daughter, Leslie. She told her she loved her.

Authorities have not yet detailed what Roof did or said in the hour he sat with the group. But at some point, they say, he stood and pulled out his pistol.

Tywanza Sanders attempted to stop him.

“You don’t have to do this,” he said.

“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.

When the shooting stopped, Roof went to 70-year-old Polly Sheppard, who’d been praying for salvation, and told her he was “letting her live so she could tell what happened,” she would tell her niece.

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.

Family members began gathering at a nearby hotel. Around midnight, Sylvia Johnson saw Felecia Sanders. 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 searched for clues, bouquets and cards piled up outside the church. Groups gathered to cry and pray and try to fathom how this could have happened.

Alonza Washington, pastor of nearby Wallingford Presbyterian, said the church had suffered through many tragedies. But this “great evil act” 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.”

Roof was in custody within 13 hours. When he appeared for a bond hearing Friday, about four dozen relatives and friends of the dead 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 assembled could see Roof _ in a baggy, striped jumpsuit, his hands cuffed behind him _ over a closed-circuit television. He could not see the anguished crowd but could hear them.

Roof’s blue eyes stared blankly as one 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.
Anthony Thompson, Myra’s widower, pleaded with Roof to “take this opportunity to repent.”

Then came Felecia Sanders. Clutching a tissue, 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.”

Unlike the others, Sanders did not offer him her explicit forgiveness. But 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, 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.

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