Members of a historic black church returned to their sanctuary yesterday to hear a sermon of recovery and healing, a message that will reverberate across America.
It marks the first worship service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston since Dylann Roof, 21, sat among a Bible study group and opened fire after saying that he targeted them because they were black, authorities said.
Among the nine killed was the church pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator.
Events to show solidarity were yesterday planned throughout the city and beyond, including the synchronised ringing of church bells. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and her family were to attend the service at Emanuel.
Despite grim circumstances, the welcoming spirit that Roof exploited before the shooting is still alive, church members insisted.
Harold Washington, 75, expects the sanctuary to host even more newcomers after one shattered the group’s sense of peace and security.
Mr Washington said the cleaners had to cut bullet holes out of the walls so that members of the congregation would not see them.
“We’re gonna have people come by that we’ve never seen before and will probably never see again, and that’s OK,” he said on Saturday. “It’s a church of the Lord: you don’t turn nobody down.”
Church leaders will try to address the heavy psychological burdens parishioners bring with them. An hour before service, people lined up outside the church.
“I think just because of what people have gone through, emotions are definitely heightened, not just in Charleston but with anyone going to church because it is such a sacred place, it is such a safe place,” Shae Edros, 29, said after a multiracial group of women sang “Amazing Grace” outside the church on Saturday afternoon.
On the nearby Arthur Ravenel Bridge, people were expected to join hands in a “solidarity evening”.
The Unity Church of Charleston’s Reverend Ed Kosak said delivering the sermon would be emotionally taxing but he felt empowered by the strength and grace that Emanuel members have shown.
“I’ve gone into Sunday sermons before like when Virginia Tech happened, and when the Sikh shootings happened,” Rev Kosak said.
“I am more ready than ever to speak to this tragedy in ways I didn’t think I could before.”
For the family of victim Cynthia Hurd, the service will be especially poignant. Ms Hurd, a longtime librarian, would have been celebrating her 55th birthday and was planning a trip to Virginia with her siblings.
“Sunday will not be a sad day for me; it will be a celebration for me. It will be a celebration for our family because our faith is being tested,” Ms Hurd’s younger brother Malcolm Graham said.
“She was in the company of God trying to help somebody out. She was where she needed to be.”