COLUMBIA, S.C. - In this city of churches, a city where the past -- a painful one for African-Americans -- is on full display, the blood shed on the hallowed ground of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is profoundly personal not only for its 500 worshippers but also for the wider community.

"We're still in mourning. You've got to remember. We haven't had a funeral yet," said the Rev. William Swinton Jr., 57, who was overwhelmed by grief and duty.

He is the leader of the Ebenezer AME Church, a 15-minute walk through downtown Charleston from Emanuel, where a hate-twisted gunman Wednesday night killed Swinton's friend and fellow pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and eight other men and women. Swinton's flock has come to him for solace.

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"We're like a patient who is due for surgery but we've already been cut open and there is nothing being done to heal us."

Thousands held hands across the aisle singing "We Shall Overcome," during a prayer service at the College of Charleston on Friday night.

"On the one hand, it's an attack on the body of Christ, on believers," said Nelson B. Rivers III, pastor at Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. "On a more personal level, Clementa Pinckney was a friend, a brother."

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Deidra Waymer, who attended the vigil, said she thought about the history and progress made by African-Americans like herself.

"It's powerful to see the love that is exhibited here between everybody, regardless of the race and the background," said Waymer, 40, of Summerville, South Carolina.

Rivers said, "The most emotional moment for me was the crowd -- a predominantly white crowd coming to mourn and encourage and support an almost all-black congregation."

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"Fifty years ago that wouldn't have happened," he said.

Dawn Mears, 51, a white Charleston resident, said she hopes people see from their revulsion over the attack that South Carolinians "have faith and love and belief in each other."

Past 'based on racial divide'

But from other perspectives, South Carolina's history with racism and the present aren't all that far apart. A Confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the state Capitol.

That emblem was displayed in various photos by Dylann Roof, 21, who is said to have sat for nearly an hour with a Bible study group before unleashing a fusillade of bullets punctuated with racial epithets.

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"The South is deeply rooted in hatred. This is where the Civil War started. We have streets named after slave owners," said state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, Pinckney's friend and colleague, whose district includes the scene of the shooting on Calhoun Street. "Our history is based on racial divide."

Dennis Clement, 63, of North Charleston, who visited the makeshift memorial at the church on Friday, said he was surprised a person as young as Roof harbored such hatred and racist beliefs.

"I would expect that from an older generation, somebody in my age group that experienced a lot of segregation back in the day," said Clement, who is black. "I'm thinking this new generation of millennials would be more tolerant of the racial mix of people and would not hold these evil and hateful thoughts."

He took photos of the memorial to show to his 8-year-old granddaughter and tell her: "There's some evil people in the world; everybody is not like that."

Flowers piled up at the memorial Saturday. One note on cardboard said: "We will not forget you and your example." The dental hygienist of one victim, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74, wrote in tribute that he "loved his Listerine" and his "voice reminded me of my father."

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A young parishioner from Emanuel sat on the sidewalk staring at the flowers, silent for at least 30 minutes. Other congregation members, and strangers too, knelt down next to him, and put their hands on his back and shoulders. "Lord, you are able to mend broken hearts," one woman prayed.

Ismail Al-Muid, 32, of North Charleston, also comforted the young parishioner but appeared to be seething when he compared the death of Pinckney, 41, a state senator, with other black leaders assassinated throughout American history. "I don't think this was random," he said.

Church's role in activism

When Emanuel was founded, Charleston was a slave-trading hub. The church known as "Mother Emanuel" has played an important role over two centuries in resistance to slavery, segregation and latter-day forms of discrimination.

University of Michigan political science professor Robert Mickey, noting the historic role of black churches in activism, said, "While generally in the South, they've been places of refuge, it's important to remember, they haven't always been safe spaces."

Emanuel began in 1816 as an answer to discrimination by white-run churches. It was later burned to the ground because of the role of Denmark Vesey, a church founder and free black man, in a thwarted slave rebellion in 1822.

Its congregation kept together in secret and played an integral part in the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to freedom in the North. It re-emerged in the open with a building after the Civil War. It was rebuilt again after an earthquake in 1886, a magnificent brick structure with encircling marble panels.

"They built that particular sanctuary as a statement to the world that people of color could do something great and majestic as Caucasians had already done in Charleston," said the Rev. Stephen Singleton, the pastor from 2006 to 2010 who preceded Pinckney.

Civil rights leaders through the 20th century planned their strategies at Emanuel, he said. Nowadays, candidates flock there seeking votes.

Emanuel served the community's material and spiritual well-being in other ways.

Leon Turner, 61, a member for more than 50 years, said fellow congregants helped him to stop gambling and encouraged him to apply for his job at a paper company. He echoed the unshakable merciful spirit that victims' relatives voiced at a bond hearing for Roof on Friday.

"Yes, there is anger, but we will forgive," he said.

Emanuel's survivors plan to reopen its doors Sunday. For all the horror and pain he inflicted, the killer has failed to extinguish hope.