More than four years after the devastating, racially motivated shooting at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel church, the Rev. Eric Manning opens up about the church’s legacy, how the city has changed—and how a new memorial will honor those who died.
On June 17, 2015, during bible study at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (or Mother Emanuel), nine people—pastor Clementa Pinckney as well as congregation members Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson—were shot and killed by a 21-year-old, white-supremacist male. One year later, the Reverend Eric Manning became the new pastor of Mother Emanuel, which has tapped the Israeli American architect Michael Arad (of the National September 11 Memorial) to help commemorate the “Emanuel Nine” on its church grounds. Here, Reverend Manning opens up about the community’s recovery, the church’s resilience, and what the coming memorial will bring to the city.
Well, Mother Emanuel is the oldest African American church below the Mason-Dixon line—just knowing that speaks volumes. It’s a church that has stood in the face of injustice for 201 years, from [cofounder] Denmark Vesey standing up for the rights of blacks within Charleston [before he was executed and the church burned down by a white mob in 1822] through the Civil War and its rebirth as a place where African Americans come together to worship, to be part of a larger community. You think about the legacy of Booker T. Washington, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of all those great giants in the civil rights movement—they have come through this place; they have sat in this pulpit. As time progressed, there was this sense of resiliency being birthed here, and that resonates throughout its current history. In a world filled with so much darkness and animosity, Mother Emanuel continues to serve as a beacon of light, to display not only to the community but also—dare we say—to the world what it means to forgive and to remind that there’s no place for hate in this society.
It takes time for people to recover from trauma. You never forget the sacrifice of the Emanuel Nine, but then you also remember how the families forgave, how the church forgave, how the community came together. I shared with the congregation this year from Psalm 34, verse 3: “O magnify the Lord with me and let us exalt his name together.” The key word is “together.” We have to understand that we are not by ourselves—that we have to work together to resolve our problems, to love each other better, to forgive. We have to continue to help and encourage people to do better.
Have you made any changes at the church?
There were a lot of changes made: No longer is the church open to the general public—now, you have to be buzzed in [on any day but Sunday]. We have security. Service should not be a test of survival; you should not have to worry or wonder if you will leave because you came to worship. But we will continue to be that beacon of light, to be the place of hope, to be all that God would have us to be for such a time as this.
Would you say Charleston has been changed?
I was encouraged by the mayor’s leadership when the city council issued a proclamation and an apology for slavery. I’m always encouraged by seeing churches come together: In November we were able to host the South Carolina Baptist Convention here—to have a worship service with not only the white Southern Baptists but also the black—and it was awesome. But there’s still so much work to be done. Because people look here during times of senseless tragedies—they look to Charleston, they look to Mother Emanuel—to ask, “How do we navigate through this?”
The church commissioned Michael Arad—the Israeli American architect of the National September 11 Memorial—to design a memorial outside the church. What will it look like?
The design that he and his team have come up with is phenomenal. Of course, the church is still the centerpiece. When you [walk out into the courtyard you find] fellowship benches, positioned across from each other so you can have a discussion. You’re talking across the main space; the basin in the middle has a cross coming out, where the water is flowing down on the sides with the names of the Emanuel Nine—so as you’re having that dialogue, you’re remembering the sacrifice. And when it becomes too overwhelming, you have a place at the foot of the cross where you can pray or reflect. Then you go to the Survivors’ Garden and see the greenery—you see the continuation of life, the sense of resilience.
What is your greatest hope for the memorial?
That one person who is struggling with hatred or forgiveness comes to this memorial and is changed. Some people say that’s overly simplistic, but I still believe one person can change another person, which can change a community, which can change a town.
What’s the best way for travelers to engage with the church?
They’re always welcome to come and to fellowship with us and, of course, to take a tour—we have great historians who not only talk about the history of Charleston but also about Mother Emanuel’s, and how they are intertwined. If [anyone] feels led to give to the memorial [fund, they can visit emanuelnine.org]; it is a separate 501C 3 with a separate board. But most importantly, I would say just remember us in prayer.
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