Five years after shooting, Mother Emanuel uneasily adapts as pilgrimage site

Before the pandemic struck, worship often included people from across the U.S. and some foreign countries, come to pray at what they take to be a sacred site.

In this June 20, 2015, file photo, Allen Sanders, right, kneels next to his wife, Georgette, both of McClellanville, South Carolina, as they pray at a sidewalk memorial in memory of the shooting victims in front of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (RNS) — Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to livestream its services, visitors to “the Holy City,” as Charleston is sometimes called, could often be spotted wandering outside, taking photos of the façade. Worship on a given Sunday might include people from across the U.S. and some foreign countries, come to pray at what they take to be a sacred site.

Such was the curiosity and reverence for the social hall on the ground floor, where nine members of the church were killed by a white supremacist in 2015, that a sign eventually went up asking visitors not to photograph the space.

In the five years since the murders at a Wednesday evening Bible study, Mother Emanuel has continued to serve as spiritual home to its members. At the same time, they recognize that the oldest AME church in the southern United States has also become something else. A pilgrimage site. A tourist destination.

Liz Alston. Courtesy photo

Mother Emanuel members remain divided over what to make of these visitors. Liz Alston, the church’s historian and a longtime member, told me recently that at first “there were a few members who felt invaded by having strangers every Sunday.” Her take on things is different. “I was the one who would be called in to talk to many of the people,” Alston said. “It was just a sense of giving back that we would welcome (visitors) into our pews.”

“You’re welcome to come in,” she would say. “We’re Christians.”

The transformation began almost immediately, and without any forethought. “The murders were just so, so horrifying,” recalled Celeste Wiley, the visual materials archivist for the South Carolina Historical Society. “It wasn’t even 24 hours before the sidewalk in front of the church was just overflowing with tributes that had been left.”

Upon seeing this, Wiley said, “I immediately thought, ‘Oh, someone needs to take care of those.’” In the middle of June in the South Carolina Lowcountry, she said, you can expect “torrential rainstorms half an hour every day.”

At first, volunteers at the church periodically moved the makeshift memorials off the street to protect them, but quickly the church was overrun. “It was also upsetting for a lot of the congregation to have that there,” said Wiley.

Eventually the Charleston Archives, Libraries and Museums Council stepped in. This consortium of cultural institution professionals came together in 1989 in the wake of Hurricane Hugo to protect historical memory and archival materials from natural disasters. Now it was a human disaster that was calling the council to action.

Celeste Wiley. Courtesy photo

Almost a year after the shooting, A Tribute to Mother Emanuel Church, a digital archive co-curated by several  local archival initiatives in partnership with Mother Emanuel, opened to the public, funded in part by the College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Initiative.

At the South Carolina Historical Society, in addition, the collection of letters to the church extends 75 linear feet. There is correspondence from 47 states and five countries in one box alone. One letter from overseas was addressed simply, “To the Church in South Carolina.”

“That’s the only thing that’s on the envelope and it got me,” Wiley said.

When the shooting occurred, the Rev. Maurice J. Nutt, a Redemptorist Catholic priest, had just been named director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically Black school in New Orleans and the only Catholic HBCU in the United States. “I had to preach on the massacre in my opening Mass as director,” Nutt told me. “It set the theme for my time there,” which would include organizing Black Lives Matter forums at the university.

But this coincidence wasn’t the only way the massacre marked him. Like the Kennedy or King assassinations, he reflected, the Mother Emanuel massacre was one of those events you could remember precisely where you were when you heard the news. 

In October of last year, Nutt and I toured Mother Emanuel with  30 other members of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, which was meeting in Charleston. (I am an affiliate member of the organization as a white Catholic.) Nutt is the current convener of the BCTS, which fosters scholarly community among Black Catholics and those devoted to the study of Black Catholic theology, history and culture. BCTS annual meetings always involve a tour of local Black Catholic and African American historic sites and, in planning the meeting, it became clear that Mother Emanuel ranked high on the sites members hoped to see.

Our time there opened with a tour of the sanctuary and a talk by an elder of the community on the history of the congregation and the building itself. When it came time for questions, it was clear that many BCTS members wanted to know how Mother Emanuel congregants were coping with the losses of June 17, 2015. Our tour guide seemed reluctant to say much on the matter.

Members of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium pray in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in October 2019. Photo by Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, Xavier University of Louisiana

When Mother Emanuel’s pastor, the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, addressed us at the end of our tour, he admitted that many were still in various stages of grief and recovery. “It gets weary” having to tell the story again and again, he said, and the steady stream of visitors forces some members to relive the tragedy again and again.

Our own time as visitors in those pews ended in prayer. Thirty-two of us joined hands with the pastor and the few Mother Emanuel members who were there that day to pray the “Litany in Remembrance of the Massacre at Mother Emanuel,” composed five years ago by the Rev. Neichelle R. Guidry, dean of Spelman College Chapel.

The litany of sorrow and mourning asks, “How long, O Lord? Will You forget us forever? How long will You hide Your face from us? How long must we take counsel in our soul and have sorrow in our hearts all the day?”

Then we cried out the names of the nine lives lost. “Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor and Susie Jackson.”

It concluded: “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears … in the midst of this chaos, call us now to revolutionary faith that resists doubt, fear and hopelessness.”

(Matthew J. Cressler is an assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston and author of “Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration.” He is on Twitter @mjcressler. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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