A year after mass shooting, Charleston church embraces its community

Posted at 7:50 AM, Jun 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-17 09:50:51-04

(CNN) — A year later, the grief still feels raw.

Nine churchgoers, all African-American, were shot by a young, white man who entered their church, joined their Bible study for an hour and then opened fire. The shooter blamed his victims because of their skin color.

After the tragedy, the church could have closed its doors or cut back on public events. Instead, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black church in the South, flung its doors wide open and welcomed people.

“Let all that you do be done in love,” the church quotes Scripture in its message about the one year anniversary. It has embraced the Charleston community with that message.

The church will hold several services and events Friday in memory of the nine victims: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson and Rev Daniel Simmons Sr.

Along with worship services, a community supper and a unity event will be held for Charleston. Many of the events are open to the public.

“I know the result of people coming and showing their love,” said Betty Deas Clark, the pastor of Emanuel AME Church.

Church pastor reaches out to Orlando

Earlier this week, Clark was in Orlando, Florida, to support the community and victims of yet another mass shooting. She attended counseling sessions with several people traumatized by Sunday morning’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub.

Clark was named the new pastor months after Rev. Pinckney was killed in the shooting. Although Clark didn’t join the church until after the shooting, she knew some of the victims personally.

Clark said she wanted to tell people in Orlando: “Time brings about healing, what you can’t see today, what you can’t imagine today. Tomorrow, you can see it as a reality if you just keep moving forward. That’s what we’ve been doing.”

Even with time, the grief feels fresh.

Earlier this week, more than 150 people gathered for the Wednesday Bible study, the same event where the shooting occurred last year. This time, it was led by Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife, Myra Thompson, died at the church shooting last year.

“The closer it gets to that anniversary date, the more anxious I feel,” Thompson told CNN affiliate WCBD. “I cry without even knowing it’s going to happen. I really have no control.”

In honor of the nine people who died, the church has asked that people perform an act of kindness on June 21 as “Acts of Amazing Grace Day”and share that deed on its Facebook page.

“With thousands of acts of grace being performed around the world, we will surely make the world a better place,” the church posted.

Any meaningful change

A year later, there is one cosmetic change. The Confederate flag no longer flies at the state Capitol complex.

And since June 17, 2015, President Barack Obama has delivered more words of regret after more mass shootings — four in the past year.

Congress has failed to pass any meaningful legislation concerning guns, even broadly favored proposals such as expanding background checks.

“It’s a shared responsibility,” Clark said. “I believe that we must deal with gun reform. There’s nothing wrong with the right to bear arms. We ought to make sure those who bear arms, they’re qualified to do so.”

What happened to the suspect

Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the suspect, Dylann Roof. He is charged with 33 federal offenses, including hate crime charges for allegedly targeting his victims on the basis of their race and religion. A judge entered a not guilty plea on his behalf in July 2015.

He told investigators he wanted to start a race war, according to one law enforcement official.

Roof’s state case is scheduled to go on trial in January. His federal trial has not yet been scheduled.

CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.