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In Memoriam

They Sat and Studied Scripture, No Matter How Long nor Hot the Day

A portrait of the Emanuel AME Wednesday Bible study group in the hours that everything and nothing changed.

This time last year, I headed to Charleston, South Carolina, in the wake of one of the most stunning mass shootings and acts of racial violence in the United States in my lifetime. The shooting of nine members of a Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church brought forth a steady stream of mourners intent on action. Within a month, the Confederate Flag flag was suddenly, finally gone from the statehouse grounds in Columbia.

Meanwhile, attempts to fix the leaks in federal and state gun laws — laws that allow people to buy guns without a completed background check — quickly stalled, again. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Mother Emanuel, the feeling was that we should never allow such a thing to happen again. And then this week it did. – MP

Days have been busy this summer at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. On the afternoon of June 17, a construction crew continued work on the church’s new elevator, built to carry aging members up to the sanctuary so they can avoid the long climb up the stairs. A few hours later, as people’s workdays ended, the church began to fill up for a business meeting. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s 41-year-old pastor and a state senator, drove down after a legislative session in the state capital, Columbia. Church elders, ministerial staff, and other members gathered on the lower-level floor that doubles as the church’s fellowship hall, a big, paneled room with folding chairs and tables that can accommodate the entire congregation. Carlotta Dennis, a longtime member and church steward, keeps tally. “We have a membership of about 927,” she says, then pauses. “I guess … minus nine.”

About 50 people showed up for the business meeting. They went through the agenda, they checked boxes. They needed to finish up quickly because the church’s Bible study group was scheduled for later that evening. The Wednesday-night Bible study had met for as long as anyone could remember. Membership changed, numbers fluctuated, but the Wednesday-night sessions had been a constant.

Elsewhere in Charleston, and indeed throughout the South, churches hold full services on Wednesday nights. But Mother Emanuel, as members call it, reserved Wednesdays for a close, intimate study of scripture. Between 20 to 25 people might be there any given week, all of them familiar faces, but it was a free-flowing kind of gathering. Everyone was welcome, but no one would be surprised if you didn’t show up. In the spring and summer, the hot Charleston sun is up late. People get tired. People have things to do. Dennis had often attended the study, but after the business meeting wrapped up, she went home. Most of the other church members did, too.

The Bible study — which typically ran for an hour or two — finally began that night just before 7:30 p.m. Thirteen people settled at a round table with their Bibles out, and notebooks for particularly salient points about that night’s passage — a serious study for serious Christians. Ethel Lance, a Church sexton and usher, stayed. So did Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a speech pathologist, girls’ track coach, and part-time minister. The Rev. Daniel Simmons, who was 74 and had come out of retirement to join the ministerial staff at Mother Emanuel, was the study group’s leader and organizer. The youngest study group member was 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders — a recent college graduate, barber, and aspiring rapper and motivational speaker, according to the back of his business cards. His family has belonged to the church for generations, and he was exactly the kind of member Pinckney was trying to bring back to the church, reviving its aging membership and stemming the flow of young people to the big megachurches in the suburbs, where many of them had gone to live. Tywanza’s aunt, 87-year-old Susie Jackson, whose favorite book was Proverbs, was also there. Rev. Pinckney attended the study while his wife and one of their daughters hung out in his office. Myra Thompson, one of 14 siblings, led the discussion that night.

Some churches host Bible studies that follow a strict curriculum. Others read through the Bible in a particular way, one that follows the liturgical calendar, or plow chronologically through the Old Testament and then the New. Mother Emanuel’s depended on who was there. “It was almost like an open book,” Dennis says. “Everything was addressed. You might do some little talking, but it was mostly study and fellowship.” This particular Bible study group, heavy on ministers and the most devout, was like a master class in scripture, a discussion among people who would have read every line and chapter multiple times, who knew the passages in a deep, thoughtful way. The stalwarts who stayed to study the Bible no matter the late hour or the heat or other things they could have been doing. Coleman-Singleton’s son would tease her for always being at the church.

For that night’s meeting, Mark 4:16 was Thompson’s chosen passage: “Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy.” It was a good metaphor for the members of the Bible study. They were public leaders of Mother Emanuel, representing their congregation in charity work, meetings around town, and, in the case of Pinckney, at the statehouse. Another member there that evening, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, who was studying to be a minister, worked for a Christian university’s learning center in Charleston. Cynthia Hurd, a local librarian, served on the board of the local housing authority and a nonprofit that gave housing grants to low-income families. They were learning so that they could spread the word for those ready to receive it — to evangelize, in a quiet way, through community leadership. “They were strong Christian persons,” Dennis says.

It was unusual for a stranger, a nonmember, to stop by the intimate Bible study. But it wasn’t unusual for nonmembers to want to see the church. Mother Emanuel, the oldest black church in the South, is a tourist stop in Charleston, and visitors have come from as far away as China. The church teaches its members from a young age about its special history, so anyone who came through the open doors — and they were always open — could meet someone prepared to tell them about Denmark Vesey, who helped found the church and planned a slave rebellion there. Or the times the church was closed or burned down for violating slave laws. Or the ways its members had met in secret for years. The church’s website invites everyone to the Bible study: “Is something missing in your life?” it asks.

When Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel AME at about 8:16 p.m., he met people who were prepared to greet him as a young man in need and offer to bring him into the fold. Harold Washington, Jr., who grew up in the church, says he can imagine Rev. Pinckney’s reaction. “He probably saw it as a victory,” he says, “for someone to congregate with them and learn with them who wasn’t a member.”

About an hour later, Pinckney’s wife heard shooting, locked the office she and her daughter were in, and called 911. Brenda Nelson, a minister who’d recently joined Mother Emanuel, was fortunate: She left the Bible study early that night. Tywanza’s mom, Felicia Sanders, and her 5-year-old granddaughter survived the attack by hiding under a table. Polly Shepphard, 70, was spared. She found a cell phone on the floor and called church member Willi Glee. She said, “He killed everybody, everybody is dead,” Glee recalls. He went down to the church, which was already blocked off, and found Shepphard at a nearby hotel.

Away from the public mourning, amid the private grieving, Glee and other members devised a plan to reopen the church last Sunday. “Church is the place where you meet God,” Glee says. “It has it’s own magic. I thought we needed that as quickly as we could.” And so at 9:30 a.m. on June 21, Brother Richard Polite, 72, stood in the back parking lot to help direct traffic. He had to move crime-scene tape to allow the cars in. Other members were escorted past the crowds by ushers and police, who checked their bags before letting them inside the church. The people who came were old and new, a very extended, very public, funereal family reunion, with somber back pats and furtive joviality. Polite has been going to Mother Emanuel since he was six years old. “I see people here I haven’t seen since I was a boy,” he said that morning. When Harold Washington, Jr. came out of the service early, he turned to Polite and said, “I’ve never seen Emanuel like that before.”

The service offered mixed feelings: joy and defiance, and a deep, terrible grief. In the backdrop was a comfortable routine: the Gloria Patri, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. It was led by an interim pastor, the Rev. Norvel Goff, and let out just before noon. The church doors were locked behind them. After the nearby Citadel Square Baptist Church services let out, its entire congregation walked over and left a flower by the back door.

Glee stayed and shook their hands.

The Bible study resumed this Wednesday, with 150 people in attendance, led by Goff. The theme was “The Power of Love.” There was still a bullet hole in the ceiling that had been taped over, CNN reported, and new ceiling tiles replaced the damaged ones. The family of Myra Thompson, one of the victims, arrived halfway through the meeting. There were nine of them, and they took seats near the front.

[Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein]