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Emanuel AME Church holds first service since Charleston massacre; church bells ring across city in memory of 9 slain

Debra Johnson, right, of Atlanta, Georgia, sings gospel

Debra Johnson, right, of Atlanta, Georgia, sings gospel hymns with hundreds of others in front of the historic Emanuel African American Methodist Church during the Sunday morning service on June 21, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Credit: Chip Somodevilla

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church reopened Sunday with a show of strength amid sorrow just days after a gunman killed nine members of the congregation during Bible study.

"The doors of Mother Emanuel [are] open on this Sunday. It sends a message to every demon in hell and on Earth," the Rev. Norvell Goff Sr. told the congregation.

Quoting Scripture, he shouted: "No weapon, no weapon, no weapon formed against us shall prosper."

In a sermon marked with messages of hope and reconciliation, Goff -- acting pastor after the rampage killed the Rev. Clementa Pinckney -- urged worshippers to rely on their faith, focus on families of the "Mother Emanuel Nine," and pray for their city and state.

And in time, he said, they will seek justice and "be vigilant and hold our elected officials accountable to do the right thing."

The alleged gunman, Dylann Roof, 21, was charged Friday with nine counts of murder and is being held on $1 million bail. He has confessed to Wednesday night's rampage and wants his actions known, according to law enforcement officials.

"A lot of folks expected us to do something strange and to break out in a riot. Well, they just don't know us," Goff said. "We are a people of faith. . . . There is nothing we can't accomplish together in the name of Jesus."

The service attracted a standing room-only crowd inside the church, many fanning themselves against the stifling heat. Outside, hundreds more listened to the service that began with hymns -- sorrowful or rousing -- and was dotted with frequent shouts of "amen," cheers and applause. Among those attending were South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.).

Parishioner Daniel Martin Jr., a Charleston family court judge, said he hoped some good would come of the tragedy.

"I think the country is going to have to search their souls to find out why there is such animus against a group of people who have been nothing more than victims in this American experience," said Martin, whose relatives have been members of the church for 100 years.

Generations of perseverance

Emanuel AME Church, known as "Mother Emanuel," has survived for nearly 200 years through slavery and segregation, and now hate again. Hundreds of congregation members and visitors in the church and outside Sunday said they felt they had to be there, despite temperatures in the 90s and the sizable crowd.

Aaron Comstock, 39, clutched a Bible during the sermon. Under his shirt, sweat dripped over a passage of Scripture tattooed on his inner arm about blessings for those who endure trials.

"I'm a Christian and I want the world to start loving each other, and maybe I can be a part of that change," said Comstock, a music teacher in North Charleston.

Martin said his mother, 86, who left the church an hour before the shooting, and his daughter, 17, could not bear to attend, but he had to be there.

"There is no way I would not be here," said Martin, 52. "The world needs to understand that . . . that person who came into our house of God, what he did can never stop people who believe in God from worshipping."

Emanuel AME member Kay Hightower returned to her ancestral church, the place where her great-grandfather, the Rev. L. Ruffin Nichols, was minister and helped rebuild it from earthquake damage in 1886.

"My heart is shattered. My heart is broken," said Hightower, a Columbia, South Carolina, resident with family on Long Island.

But she was confident the church would withstand the attack.

"We came back after Denmark Vesey," she said of the church being burned down in retaliation for its connection to Vesey, a free black man and a church founder who unsuccessfully tried to stage a rebellion. "We came back after the earthquake. . . . We endure."

Goff told the congregation that while "the blood of the Mother Emanuel Nine" requires them to seek justice for the shooting and those less fortunate, "there is a time and place for everything, and now is a time for us to focus on the nine families.

"We have some difficult days ahead but the only way evil can triumph is for good folk to sit down and do nothing," he said. "But if we are people of faith, we will join hands and begin to work together to forge a new partnership."

Remembering the victims

Church bells rang across Charleston earlier Sunday in memory of the nine victims.

The seat of Pinckney, a state senator, was covered with a black cloth.

"We are reminded this morning of the freshness of death," Goff said after reading the names of the victims. "It comes like a thief in the night."

Goff is a presiding elder of the 7th District AME Church in South Carolina, which oversees 30 churches, including Emanuel AME.

"It has been tough. It's been rough," he said. "Some of us have been downright angry, but through it all, God has sustained us."

Worshippers also found solace in music. During one hymn, the congregation sang, "This is my story. This is my song. Praising my savior all day long."

Minutes later, they were on their feet swaying and clapping as a soloist sang, "You can lean on me and I won't let you go."

Goff thanked those who had sent flowers and messages to the church after the shooting. He praised law enforcement officials and leaders who made sure Roof was caught and brought back to be prosecuted.

"We have shown the world how we as a group can come together and pray, and work out things that need to be worked out," Goff said.

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