‘You Are Welcome:’ The Night Emanuel Opened Its Door to Evil – ABC News

When Angela Brown saw the Facebook post about a shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, her mind immediately leapt to her aunt. Whenever the doors to Emanuel were open to its flock, Ethel Lance was there.

“This was her home,” said her niece, standing in the shadow of its soaring spire, tears streaming down her face.

So many people felt that way about “Mother” Emanuel.

Founded in 1818 by a free black shoemaker, the church stood as a beacon in a port city through which many legions of Africans passed on their way to bondage across the growing nation. Torched by angry whites after one of its organizers led a failed slave revolt, Emanuel rose from the ashes to serve as a stop on the Underground Railroad, even as state leaders banned all black churches and forced the congregation itself underground.

The current brick Gothic revival edifice, completed in 1891 to replace an earlier building heavily damaged in an earthquake, was a mandatory stop for the likes of Booker T. Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Still, Emanuel was not just a church for the black community.

And so, when a young white man wearing a stained gray sweat shirt and a fanny pack walked into the Bible study Wednesday evening and asked for the minister, no one thought twice. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s senior pastor, even invited the stranger to take the seat beside him.

“He wanted him to feel at home, comfortable,” says Sylvia Johnson, the minister’s cousin. “Nothing to be fearful of. This is the house of the Lord, and you are welcome.”

But the visitor had not come to worship or to commune. Tempered by fire, its faith unshaken by temblors, Mother Emanuel was about to face perhaps its greatest test.

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“Is something missing from your life?” the church website asks under the Bible Study listing in “Notices and Announcements.” ”If you have a desire to learn more about God, then join us on Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m. in the lower level of the church. We look forward to seeing you!”

DePayne Middleton-Doctor was a deeply spiritual woman who led the weekly classes at Mother Emanuel. At 49, the mother of four was juggling a new job as a college enrollment counselor along with caring for four daughters. But no matter how busy the days got, Doctor always made time for her faith — and Wednesday was an especially important moment in her journey with God.

Already licensed as a deacon at a Baptist church, Doctor had begun attending Emanuel in January — and on this night Bible study was postponed for a quarterly church business meeting that saw Doctor licensed to minister at the church. The presiding elder, the Rev. Norvel Goff, asked Doctor to stand before the 50 or so people gathered. She presented her Bible, hymnal and a church handbook, and Goff signed them with a stamp of approval.

The meeting lasted about an hour and a half, and then parishioners mingled during a 10-minute break. Doctor texted her eldest daughter, 19-year-old Gracyn, to wish her well on her first day on the job at a local retail store.

Most of those gathered for the business meeting did not stay for Bible study. Willi Glee, a church member going back decades, was going to attend but decided to pass because he hadn’t eaten all day. Before he left, one of the part-time ministers at the church approached.

“I need to give you a hug,” Sharonda Coleman-Singleton said, taking him into a big embrace. Glee would never know what prompted the gesture.

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