CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The body of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney returned home Thursday evening, where his flock has been preaching love in the face of the hate crime that took his life and those of eight others.
People packed the stairs of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Thursday evening to attend a wake for the late pastor, who was shot dead while teaching a Bible class there over a week ago.
As mourners filed past a coffin inside the church paying their respects, a crowd gathered outside to show support for the nine victims’ families.
Earlier in the day, two other victims who were gunned down by Dylann Roof in the June 17 massacre were laid to rest: Ethel Lance and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.
Before bullets struck Lance down at 70, she was enjoying retirement after dedicating 34 years to the performing arts.
In his eulogy Thursday, Brandon Risher said his grandmother “was a victim of hate, but she can be a symbol of love.”
“Hate is powerful,” he said. “But love is more powerful.”
The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton was a speech therapist and high school track coach. Her son Chris described her as “a God-fearing woman (who) loved everybody with all her heart.” If everyone loved the way she did, he said, hate wouldn’t have a chance.
Family of Roof: Let’s reflect on the victims now
Also on Thursday, the family of accused gunman Dylann Roof issued a statement through its lawyer, Boyd Young, saying it will not answer questions about the shooting for the moment.
“Rest assured, in the coming days, as more information becomes available, we will do our best to answer them. That being said, we would like to take this time to reflect on the victims and give their families time to grieve. We feel it would be inappropriate to say anything at this time other than that we are truly sorry for their loss. After an appropriate time, there will be an opportunity to have questions answered, but we ask that right now, care and attention and support be given to the grieving family members of the victims.”
On Wednesday, about 150 worshipers gathered to hear a lesson titled “The Power of Love” in the same basement room left drenched with blood. The Rev. Norvel Goff Sr., the interim pastor, reconsecrated the ground.
“This territory belongs to God,” he said.
As he spoke, people shouted back, “Hallelujah,” “Yes sir,” “Amen” and “Come on.”
But the room was still scarred. Over worshipers’ heads, a ceiling tile was missing and others were newly replaced. A bullet hole was taped over with a police ID number, “H-17.”
“Bible study will continue,” Goff told the crowd, “but because of what happened, we will never be the same.”
“Last week, dark powers came over Mother Emanuel,” Goff said, using the now-famous endearment for the church. “But, that’s all right. God in his infinite wisdom said, ‘That’s all right, I’ve got the nine.'”
Armed officer keeps watch
An armed Charleston police officer kept watch over the meeting. The scent of fresh flowers lingered from an arrangement of white mums and other blossoms in the front of the room.
In the back, a banquet table overflowed with varied floral arrangement in tribute to those who died.
Dressed all in black, a string trio — two violins and a cello — played the songs “Simple Gifts” and “Be Thou My Vison.”
Goff spoke to Roof’s hatred. “We are better than that,” he said.
A week before, Roof had sat through the class for an hour with his victims before declaring he was there “to kill black people,” pulled out a pistol and opened fire.
He has admitted to the killings, and was charged with nine counts of murder. Additionally, the Department of Justice is likely to pursue federal hate crime charges against him, law enforcement officials told CNN.
Some loved ones of Charleston’s massacre victims have — through tears and sobs — publicly forgiven Roof. And they have been met in return with a public outpouring of sympathy.
Leaders, including a number of conservatives who in the past have defended the flying of the Confederate battle flag, have supported the call to have it removed from its site outside the State House in Columbia.
After the massacre, photos surfaced of Roof posing with the banner, alongside another image of him burning an American flag. Many consider the Confederate battle flag a racist symbol.
Politicians in other states have taken swift and uncomplicated action to banish it.
On Wednesday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley directed that four Confederate flags be taken down permanently from a Confederate memorial at the State Capitol building. The Mississippi state flag, which contains the battle emblem as a prominent element, was removed from a display of state flags outside City Hall in Boise, Idaho, at the mayor’s request.
Also, the National Park Service announced that it is discontinuing items bearing the flag in its souvenir shops. Walmart, eBay and Amazon have announced they would stop selling it, and an array of other corporate giants have supported its removal.
South Carolina legislators are taking steps in the direction of removing the battle flag that flies at a Confederate memorial on the State House grounds, but the process appears complicated and slow.
A law protecting it and other Civil War symbols requires a two-thirds supermajority vote in each chamber of the legislature to take it down. But critics say it could go much faster if lawmakers would just strike down that law with a simple majority vote.
The flag was still flying Wednesday when Pinckney’s body went on public view in the State House.
Pinckney will be buried on Friday. President Barack Obama will give his eulogy.