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Black Church News in Virginia

Four Months Later: Emanuel AME Labors To Reclaim Normalcy

By Rosaland Tyler

Associate Editor

New Journal and Guide

At Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where nine congregants of color were murdered by Dylann Roof, a police officer stands at the door; but there are no pat-downs or metal detectors.

Four months after one of the worst racially motivated massacres in recent American history, the historic church is laboring to return to a new-normal. In the fellowship hall, a few small, rectangular holes are visible on a post and a wood-paneled wall – the places, members say, where investigators cut out the bullet holes. Nine congregants died. There were 77 bullets in their midst.

Since the massacre, Bible study classes sometimes attract more than 100 participants. Before the killings, attendance rarely rose above a dozen. Meanwhile, congregants are trying to decide how to spend the roughly $2 million in donations sent by well-wishers.

A husband of one of the shooting victims, Arthur Hurd filed a lawsuit asking for a full accounting of the roughly $2 million in donations. The Post and Courier reported on Oct. 16, the lawsuit was settled outside of court almost an hour before the hearing.

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Hurd filed the lawsuit after he stopped by the church in mid-July. Hurd said he watched three women at a table opening letter after letter, according to The Post and Courier. They removed what he counted as “easily” $8,000 over about 15 minutes. He didn’t see a log or any accounting for the money.

Hurd said he saw an envelope addressed to him that contained cash. It went into the cash pile, he said. He saw another letter addressed to shooting victim Sharonda Singleton’s family. The women removed a $100 bill, he said. He saw another addressed to Susie Jackson’s family. The women removed money from it as well, he said.

Now, church leaders will allow Hurd’s attorneys to inspect documents related to millions of dollars donated after the tragedy. Hurd filed the lawsuit on behalf of his wife’s estate to keep the money from being spent until the families’ attorneys can be sure it’s going where it was intended.

Founded in 1791, the historic church is grappling with other new realities. Not only must it comply with the agreement recently reached outside of court. Specifically, it has 30 days to produce disbursement documents and cannot spend the money until attorneys have inspected the information.

The historic church is also attracting a significant number of worshipers who are not people of color.

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

Pointing to the church’s (new) struggles, the Rev. Norvel Goff, 66, the area’s presiding elder who was named Emanuel AME’s interim pastor, said he believes God is guiding Emanuel on a new path to a truly integrated church.

“What I see is a cross-generational, cross-racial future for a church that is no longer restricted to its former self,” Goff said.

This means the church is struggling to resolve financial disagreements. And its congregation is changing. Meanwhile the two lone survivors of the massacre: Polly Sheppard and Felicia Sander are struggling to comprehend the new-normal.

“Everything I believe in has been shaken,” said Sander, a 57-year-old hairstylist, whose son Tywanza was shot and killed in the church. Sander said during the massacre, she grabbed her granddaughter and clutched the child’s face tightly against her chest, whispering: “Just play dead, play dead, play dead …”

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Tywanza, beside her, was wounded. “Why are you doing this?” Tywanza asked the shooter. Soon, Tywanza was silent. His blood flowed onto the floor. Tywanza was days away from celebrating his 27th birthday.

Roof stepped toward Polly Sheppard, a retired nurse, and said, “I am going to let you live so you can tell the story of what happened.” Polly watched the man try to fire more rounds – click, click – and then leave. She heard sirens.

“I’m heartbroken,” Felicia Sander said. “I felt so safe at Emanuel. That hurts the most. I always felt like as long as I’m there, I’m OK.”

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