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Remembering the Emanuel AME Church Tragedy

Jun 29, 2022

The Rev. Canon John Thompson-Quartey views memorials in front of Emanuel AME Church on the day he delivered the donation from the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Photo: Don Plummer

The Rev. Canon John Thompson-Quartey views memorials in front of Emanuel AME Church on the day he delivered the donation from the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Photo: Don Plummer.

In June 2015, a mass shooting during an evening Bible study at historically Black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, killed nine people.

On the seventh anniversary of the event, we take a look back and update the story.

Initial reports said only that a young white man had killed nine people, including the Church pastor.

Leaders of the Episcopal Dioceses of Atlanta and Georgia were stunned by the brutality of the attack and quick to respond.

Bishop Rob Wright of Atlanta and then-Bishop of Georgia Scott A. Benhase immediately issued a joint statement condemning the slaying. Here is an excerpt.

As we weep with those who mourn today, we are assured that even amidst the blood love wins!

God’s mercy is with the dead, with those who have lost loved ones and with the one who pulled the trigger.

But we must be clear: our work does not end with the home-going services of these faithful martyrs. The vicious act directed at worshipers in Emanuel AME Church was not only murder, it was also a racial hate crime.

Over the next week, the world learned more shocking details.

First, the young white man had been welcomed into the group’s Wednesday night Bible study and after participating he stood and calmly opened fire. He told the only survivor he spared her so she could tell the world his motive was to ignite a race war.

Next, there was even more stunning news. The family members of the victims and the survivors – one after one – stood up during the suspect’s bond hearing with messages of forgiveness.

Once these facts became known Bishop Rob Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta decided to honor the faithfulness to Jesus’ command to love our enemies by the families of the Emanuel victims.

He designated a special offering at the June 27 ordination of priests for the iconic church known as Mother Emanuel for its history as a church founded by slaves. The next day, a delegation presented the offering during the Sunday morning service at Mother Emanuel, only the second held since the murders.

The Rev. John Thompson-Quartey and Rev. Sharon Hiers, who is from Charleston, presented the offering and expressed the diocese’s condolences to the packed church service, which included a surprise visitor, then-Vice President Joe Biden, and his family.

The Rev. Canon John Thompson-Quartey and then Vice President Joe Biden at the service. Photo: Don Plummer

The Rev. Canon John Thompson-Quartey and then Vice President Joe Biden at the service. Photo: Don Plummer.

Rev. Quartey vividly recalls the 2015 service.

The congregation had just experienced a terrible loss when a lone gunman brutally massacred nine members, including their pastor, shortly after an evening of bible study and prayer, by a white supremacist.

The grief and sorrow of the congregation were palpable, and yet, the worship service was uplifting and celebratory, to underscore the Christian belief that even in death, we make our song, alleluia! For no amount of hatred could separate the children of God from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

The lone gunman who committed such an act of hatred was intending to start a race war, but the reaction and response from the faith community thwarted his evil intent. Rather, the people of God came together to honor the lives that were suddenly cut short.

The throngs of people that came to Mother Emanuel AME Church that Sunday morning included people from all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. This was a hopeful sign and a loving testimony to the unity that we all share in Christ Jesus.

In addition to our greetings and condolences, we presented a generous check, which was a special offering collected from the priest ordination on June 27, 2015, to the Reverend Norvel Goff, the presiding elder of the 7th District AME Church in South Carolina.

Such acts of violence – which stem from race hatred – continue to tear asunder the fabric of our common humanity. The people of God must raise our voices to let our elected officials know that we have had enough of these mass shootings and that some constructive actions must be taken to prevent future acts of violence with guns.

On June 17, 2021, the anniversary date of this violent act, another evening Bible study convened at Mother Emanuel.

The study was on Mark 4:1-9, the Parable of the Sower, which the nine victims were studying when they were murdered. Among faith leaders participating In what organizers styled as an Inaugural National Bible Study, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry.

The Bible study organizers said the clergy and Bible scholars explored the passage through the lens of an alternative title for the passage, The Parable of the Soils.

“In view of the rising tide of white supremacy in America, the panelists will address questions to be put before the nation: What kind of soil are we? What kind of soil are we willing to become?”

Other participants included Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; politicians, including Rep. Jim Clyburn and Sen. Tim Scott; and relatives of the victims. Just before he arrived at Friday’s event, Presiding Bishop Curry had to issue a Pastoral Letter, a deadly shooting Thursday evening at an Alabama Episcopal Church had killed three parishioners. Here’s an excerpt.

Even as I write, I am on the way to the commemoration of the nine who were martyred in 2015 at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The plague of gun violence in the United States affects us all, and now it has affected a congregation in The Episcopal Church.

Curry directed readers of his letter to Bishops Against Gun Violence. Get updates on the latest news and actions to take at the Episcopal Public Policy Network.

Looking Ahead

Leaders at Mother Emanuel AME plan to honor the nine lives lost with a memorial on the church grounds with a groundbreaking set for the fall. Church leaders hope the memorial will serve as a symbol of hope for people in the community.

The church said it has raised $12.7 million so far for the project. The fundraising goal is $20 million. The church said it hopes to unveil the memorial by 2024.

Learn more about Emanuel AME Church

Don Plummer is the beat reporter for The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. If you have story ideas, please reach out to Don.

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