Worshippers once again filled the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on Sunday, four days after a 21-year-old gunman filled the church with carnage in a racially-based mass shooting, killing nine.
More than 1,000 people reportedly attended the Charleston, South Carolina, church – including Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. – squeezing into a sanctuary that was built for 800.
The Rev. Norvel Goff said before the gathered that, “No evildoer, no demon in hell or on Earth can close the doors of God’s church.”
Sunday morning saw people reportedly lining up as early as 6 a.m. to gain entrance into the service. Church members were let in at 8:30 a.m., and guests were let in after, as the organ played “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
“What happened here happened to everybody in this church community,” Tara Wright, a longtime church member told PEOPLE. “Everyone is connected. Their parents went here and their parents and then their parents.”
Some rows toward the back sat Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and, next to him, the social activist Deray McKesson.
Police stood guard, according to multiple reports. No bags or water bottles were allowed in, according to the AJC. However, volunteers handed out water inside the church.
The street in front of the church became another sacred space. Closed by police, it too filled with hundreds of people, holding hands, singing and praying, adding their voices to those inside.
There were deep rows of flowers left on the church’s facade along with teddy bears and signs. Two copies of Daimyo Jackson’s Weed Out Hate CD were also placed amongst the items.
But the congregation missed its nine victims, including head pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator, whose seat in the sanctuary was shrouded in black cloth.
Goff thanked the citizens of Charleston and South Carolina, according to CNN: “We have shown the world how we as a group of people we can come together and pray and work out things that need to be worked out.”
He thanked Gov. Haley and the FBI. “Finally I want to say thank you to law enforcement. I have no problem in doing that. I want to thank them,” he said.
Not all of the victims’ families felt they could return to “Mother Emanuel” so soon.
“For me, it will be very hard to walk into that church,” Rose Mary Singleton, a lifelong church member and niece of victim Ethel Lance, told the Post and Courier. “You want to go back, but your heart tells you it will be so difficult.”
And Goff said they would pursue justice for these deaths.
“We’re going to be vigilant and we’re going to hold our elected officials accountable to do the right thing,” he said, according to CNN. “The blood of the Mother Emanuel Nine requires us to work until not only justice is served in this case, but for those who are still living on the margin of life.”
The service was emotional, with several people shouting out “Amen!” and “Yes Lord” during Goff’s speech. Paramedics had to tend to several people inside the church while other churchgoers watched on while fanning themselves with paper.
Goff has the city, and beyond, behind him: At 10 a.m., Charleston’s churches began ringing their bells in solidarity, according to CNN.
Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson also donated $10,000 to each of the families of the nine victims, according to ESPN.
At one point in the service, according to the Post and Courier, a trumpeter and choir joined in to a rendition of “Jesus Said You Can Lean on Me,” worshippers clapping and dancing and crying, and the entire building shook.
• Reporting by ALEXANDRA ROCKEY FLEMING
Individuals who want to donate in memory of the victims of the Charleston church massacre are asked to text “prayforcharleston” to 843-606-5995 or donate online at the Palmetto Project.
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