Four months after deadly mass shooting, Charleston church’s road to recovery is bumpy

On June 22, U.S. Army Spc. Ron Leary, left, and Astride Leary, of Savannah, Ga., prayed at a sidewalk memorial to the shooting victims in front of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
On June 22, U.S. Army Spc. Ron Leary, left, and Astride Leary, of Savannah, Ga., prayed at a sidewalk memorial to the shooting victims in front of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. AP file photo

The Rev. Norvel Goff Sr. was standing on a Wednesday evening in the room where the massacre occurred at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, readying himself to lead Bible study.

A police officer was at the door. But for those who arrived, even the strangers, there were no pat-downs, no metal detectors. They were all as welcome as Dylann Roof had been when he arrived on a Wednesday night in June, concealing his pistol and his intentions.

If the visitors had come looking for a grand statement on racial reconciliation, the open door was it. At Bible study, surrounded by walls bearing scars of the mayhem, Goff expounded on the more routine topics of salvation and sin.

“All have sinned, am I right about it?” he said, pacing the floor. “Is there a distinction between a big sin and a little sin in the Bible?”

Four months after one of the worst racially motivated massacres in recent U.S. history, the members of this historic African-American church are laboring to return to the everyday rhythms of worship. But they also know that things will never be the same.

Many of Emanuel’s 550 members are proud of the example of forgiveness they set for the world — the “open heart” that President Barack Obama cited in his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Emanuel’s slain pastor. But to worship at Emanuel is also to revisit a crime scene, a sacred space violated by a white gunman who took the lives of nine of their friends.

In the fellowship hall, on a post and a wood-paneled wall, a few small, rectangular cavities are visible — the places, members say, where investigators cut out the bullet holes.

The members are also struggling with pain, hard feelings and new questions about their future. The congregation, which was founded in 1791 and forged in the crucible of slavery and racial oppression, now finds its Sunday service studded with significant numbers of new, nonblack worshippers. They come out of solidarity, curiosity or penance.

“We just felt the need to show our respect, and our support,” said Jill Wojno, 47, a white woman from Cincinnati who attended a church service with a group of vacationing friends. “We want things to change.”

The interim pastor is also a newcomer of sorts. Before the shooting, Emanuel was one of 31 churches overseen by Goff in his role as an AME presiding elder. But he was not well known to many church members when he was appointed to take Pinckney’s place.

In recent days, some members of Goff’s previous church in Columbia, S.C., have raised questions about his management of finances there, while some of the victims’ families have expressed concern about how Emanuel plans to distribute the roughly $2 million in donations sent by well-wishers.

Arthur Hurd, a husband of one of the shooting victims, filed a lawsuit this month asking that the donations be placed into a trust, arguing that the church had been neither “transparent nor forthcoming” with information about the money.

And even though some of the slain churchgoers’ relatives famously forgave Roof during his bond hearing two days after the shooting, the sentiment is not universal.

“If I have to forgive him to go to heaven,” said Willi Glee, 75, “I’m going to end up in hell with him.”

At the Bible study that Goff led in late September, about a dozen of the 40 participants were not black. Some were locals. A multicultural contingent had made a pilgrimage from Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.

Afterward, they walked with Goff up to the sanctuary, with its wine-red carpet, and asked what had been hardest for him.

It was the “freshness” of death, he said, and the “lesson of forgiveness.”

”It’s not a word that you only read, but you must live it,” he said. “Is it easy? No. But the good news is we go through this with the spirit of God guiding us.”

Since the massacre, more than 100 participants have packed the Bible study classes on some nights. Before the killings, Pinckney was lucky to get a dozen.

But some of the absences are just as notable. Felicia Sanders was a regular at Bible study for years; she was present when, the police say, Roof opened fire on her fellow worshippers, killing her son Tywanza Sanders, 26. After the shooting started, Felicia Sanders dived to the floor with her young granddaughter, urging her to play dead.

These days, she stays away. Andy Savage, her lawyer and friend, said that returning to the fellowship hall was too painful for her. He said no one from the new Bible study, including Goff, had reached out to invite her back.

“I can’t tell you the depths of the hurtfulness of that,” Savage said.

Concerns about Goff’s past leadership, which were reported in The Post and Courier, the Charleston daily newspaper, have added to the pain.

Some members of Reid Chapel AME, the Columbia church where Goff served as pastor until November 2014, contend that he borrowed money and mortgaged church property without properly informing the members, saddling the church with debt.

On Oct. 7, Goff held a news conference at Emanuel defending his record. He maintained that Emanuel’s ministry had reached out to Felicia Sanders. He also said he had followed all of the rules at his old church, and had borrowed money to make capital improvements and to buy a parsonage, to which he was entitled. He noted that the accounting firm BDO had been retained to oversee the handling of the donations to Emanuel.

Charles N. Williams, 60, a longtime Emanuel member, said he supported Goff. Money troubles, he said, were bound to arise, as they always do. “Just ask old Judas,” he said.