Funerals for slain church members call on God’s amazing grace

CHARLESTON—People spoke so many beautiful words about the nine men and women killed in the recent church shooting that they could flow all the way to God’s door, like a river of peace.

Several members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have been laid to rest in recent days, each one bringing hundreds, and sometimes thousands of people to pay their respects.

Funeral services were held June 25 for the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Ethel Lance, both attended by top political and religious leaders along with many strangers, all touched by the outpouring of love and unity set off by their deaths.

At Lance’s funeral, her granddaughter, Aja Risher, said she doesn’t want her grandmother remembered as a victim, but to serve as a catalyst for change.

Speakers at Coleman-Singleton’s service said that the country needs to hold onto the grace that came out of the shootings as a transformative example and use it to reach a higher ground.

It is a theme that has reverberated this past week, and was loud and clear at State Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s service. As a public figure and pastor of AME, Pinckney has become the global face, often representing all of the church members killed in that hail of bullets.

His funeral at TD Arena on June 26 brought the nation’s top leaders — including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Bayner — to the city in a public nod to the grace that each of the victims has inspired.

In the eulogy delivered by Pres. Barack Obama, he called Pinckney “a man of God who lived by faith … a man of service … a good man,” and paid tribute to each of the members of Mother Emanuel AME whose lives were taken too soon.

At the start of the senator’s “going home celebration,” the Rev. Norvel Goff Sr. told the crowd of thousands — “in case there was any confusion” by the long lines, politicians and media — “what we enter into is worship … What we’ve been through and what we will go through would not be possible without our God.”

Goff recognized members of the U.S. Congress, the state legislature, a huge contingent of clergy, the public and noted leaders, including “the nation’s mayor” Mayor Joseph Riley and Gov. Nikki Haley.

The pastor told the grieving family that the world has come to them to offer comfort as South Carolina demonstrates how “we handle our grief and hold onto our faith.”

Throughout the service, the message of unity, strength and faith drew loud applause and shouts of approval.

S.C. Sen. Gerald Malloy, a friend and colleague of Pinckney, said his sacrifice must lead to reconciliation. As cheers broke out, Malloy continued, “Clementa Pinkney’s last act as a Christian … was to open his doors to someone he did not know … do not close them now.”

“Yes, Lord!” the crowd agreed.

As one of the speakers said, on the day that those nine souls were taken, Satan was bamboozled. He sent his servant to the wrong church, the wrong people, the wrong time. And his effort at planting seeds of hate were transformed into God’s grace.

The grace of forgiveness was first initiated by family members of those slain, who faced Dylann Roof in court and said they forgave him and would pray for him. Roof has been charged with the killings. That simple, yet unimaginably difficult act, opened the doors for transformation.

Obama said the pain of the shootings cut deeper because they happened at a church, a sanctuary, and wondered if Roof understood the significance of the church’s history.

“It was an act that he imagined would incite fear, and incrimination, violence and suspicion. An act he presumed would deepen divisions …,” he said, his voice flowing like a preacher’s. Then, pausing, he added, “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas!”

Instead, he set off a completely different reaction of love and unity, through the power of grace — God’s amazing grace, Obama said.

As the Right Rev. John Bryant, senior bishop of the AME Church, said, “Someone should have told this young man — he wanted to start a race war — that he came to the wrong place. I want to invite your prayers.”

Bryant prays that good will come of tragedy, that out of all of this, someone will hear the word of Jesus and be saved. And that, he said, will bring joy to the souls that have gone home.

At the conclusion of the eulogy for Pinckney, Obama spoke about God’s gift of grace, saying, “If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything could change.” He paused for a long time and then, in a clear voice, began singing “Amazing Grace.” After a few beats, the organist and thousands of mourners joined in.

Funerals for Cynthia Hurd, Twanza Sanders, Susie Jackson and the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor were scheduled for June 27, followed throughout the next days by Myra Thompson and the Rev. Daniel Simmons.