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Sown Among Thorns
It would be a late night. That much Felicia Sanders knew when she gathered her worn Bible and headed out into the swampy summer heat of June. She had a 5 o’clock committee meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, where her family had worshipped since the days when Jim Crow ruled the old slave city she still called home. First, she would attend two meetings, one small and one large, to handle routine church business.
Last would come Bible study, her favorite.
She slipped into her black Toyota 4Runner, where she kept an extra pair of flats in case she was called to usher at the last minute. A day rarely went by that didn’t bring Felicia to the place that many folks called Mother Emanuel, given its revered status as the South’s oldest AME church. Its members knew they could count on her to help with just about anything. Revivals. Mother’s Day programs. Fundraising. Sunday school. Felicia, a fifty-seven-year-old grandmother and hairstylist, had served as a trustee, a steward, the usher board president. She even volunteered as Emanuel’s chicken fryer, although she herself was a vegetarian.
Felicia did it because she loved God, and she loved the congregation. Mother Emanuel was home.
A handsome woman with soft hips and high cheekbones, she had grown up with her siblings in Charleston’s downtown projects, attending church with her strict grandmother after her own mother died young. Felicia’s husband, Tyrone, had also grown up among closely bound families in the working-class black neighborhoods near Emanuel. After years of hard work, however, they had been able to provide a suburban life for their own children, complete with a two-story house and the wide tree-draped front lawn that Felicia now drove past.
As she cruised along a winding road that led toward downtown Charleston, she wondered if her youngest child would make it to Emanuel that night. Tywanza also loved Bible study, but he was working a shift at Steak ’n Shake, one of his two jobs, and had warned her that he might run late. The thought meandered away as she crossed over a wide river, passed a marina adorned with gleaming white vessels, and merged onto downtown Charleston’s thin peninsula.
Pedestrians crowded its thin streets, many lined with majestic old churches and finely restored antebellum homes. A few traffic lights stopped Felicia along a tourist-choked stretch of Calhoun Street, named after the country’s seventh vice president and one of its most ardent defenders of slavery. A 115-foot monument to the man towered over a verdant city square that bordered the street Felicia, a black woman, now navigated. It was so much a part of the place that she scarcely noticed it anymore. One building beyond the statue, she eased into a lot outside of Mother Emanuel and strolled inside, as she had thousands of times before.
* * *
As Felicia made her way into the church of her ancestors, a young white man, lean of frame, with a mop of bowl-cut sandy brown hair, sat one hundred miles away pecking at a keyboard inside his father’s house at the heel of a dead-end road. The young man sometimes slept overnight on the couch, although that wasn’t his plan today. He was busy putting the finishing touches on his new website. Its subject: “issues facing our race.”
A couple of years earlier, he’d Googled “black on white crime,” mostly out of passing curiosity, and stumbled onto a surprisingly robust realm of white supremacist websites. There he’d discovered claims of grave threats to his race—an epidemic of violence against whites, the overlooked inferiority of blacks, and a vast conspiracy to cover it all up. Writings on the sites he’d plumbed after that search had fomented what he now considered his life’s great epiphany: his racial awakening.
The young man’s keyboard clattered in time with the words he’d read and now adopted as his own. “I wish with a passion that niggers were treated terribly throughout history by Whites, that every White person had an ancestor who owned slaves, that segregation was an evil an oppressive institution, and so on. Because if it was all it true, it would make it so much easier for me to accept our current situation.”1
Instead, black people were slaughtering innocent whites, raping white women, and taking over the nation. Yet, nobody cared. The media ignored it. His friends didn’t get it. Even his own family didn’t see it. And the white people who did realize it—the skinheads, neo-Nazis, and KKK—just bitched about it online. Nobody was doing anything to change it.
“Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
He apologized for not writing more. But he had to go.
His pale skin and rail-thin stature—though five-foot-nine, he barely topped 120 pounds—allowed him to move in a silence of unnoticeability. At 6:13 p.m., he slipped into his creaky old black Hyundai Elantra and steered it toward the city he’d visited a half-dozen times over the past six months, seeking his target. He’d selected a place that drew good people, the kind whose murders would garner notice and outrage.
* * *
The white stucco building, a Gothic revival style built back in 1891, stood grand as ever, though her paint crumbled in spots and termites chewed her frame. Gentrification and aging congregations hadn’t been kind to many of downtown Charleston’s black churches, including Felicia’s beloved Emanuel. The collection plate just didn’t go as far as it once did, given that neither the building nor the members were getting any younger. The church held just one service on Sundays now, and most of the pews still sat empty.
Two sets of stairs led to its front entrance and the crimson-hued sanctuary inside, a sacred space both for its tradition of worship and its role in America’s civil rights history—the likes of Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken here back when the congregation topped one thousand. Felicia didn’t ascend those steps, however.
It was Wednesday, not Sunday, so she headed to the left side of the building, which bordered a neighboring church. This side of Emanuel had a narrow parking lot and two sets of doors that led inside to the fellowship hall, an open space that stretched across most of its ground floor. For the Bible study’s regulars, this hall had been the site of hours upon hours spent studying the sacred text more closely than Sunday worship allowed. A core group of a half-dozen or so of Emanuel’s most devoted members, including Felicia, showed up for the study every Wednesday evening.
Felicia entered one of the side doors, left unlocked for members and visitors alike. She associated the room with these intimate sessions but also with church meetings and special celebrations, like her Aunt Susie’s big seventieth birthday. With its caramel-colored wood paneling, cushioned couches, and bulletin boards, it felt like a cross between a grandmother’s living room and an elementary school classroom. The rectangular space was oriented around a small, slightly raised altar on one wall. Three ornate wooden chairs, cushioned in red velvet, sat perched on it near a hefty Bible on a lectern. The pastor’s office door sat just a few feet to the altar’s right. To its left, a short hallway led to the secretary’s office and a second set of doors to the outside, the ones almost at the back of the church.
On both ends of the room, snug staircases allowed access to Emanuel’s second-floor sanctuary, which slumbered above. The design necessitated the need for an elevator to serve its older members. Plans for that elevator brought Felicia to Emanuel now, early, before much of the congregation would arrive for their large quarterly conference meeting shortly after. Rows of empty folding chairs awaited larger audiences like that meeting would draw. On the other side of the room, away from the doors, four round foldable white tables stretched in a row. These hosted more intimate conversations, like Bible study.
The elevator committee members now gathered at one of them to check their progress after years of fundraising, planning, and building. Construction was almost done, a reason to celebrate. Felicia had a special place in her heart for the church’s elderly congregants, including her beloved Aunt Susie, who had just arrived, walking with a cane.
* * *
Iconography intrigued the young man. His companions on the one-hundred-mile drive to Charleston included his new .45-caliber Glock and eight magazines with eleven hollow-point bullets in each. It made for a total of eighty-eight rounds. The number was a symbol for HH, based on the alphabet’s eighth letter, a neo-Nazi favorite: Heil Hitler.
His fifteen-year-old Hyundai also bore a Confederate States of America license plate with three different Confederate flags, although its presence on the car wouldn’t draw any particular attention. In much of the old Confederacy, battle flags still flew on porches and embellished pickup trucks, a symbol of white southern pride and a snub to elitist Yankees who flocked south for the strong economy and pleasant climate while deriding its heritage.
Without stopping, he cruised toward South Carolina’s most historic city, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired in the first state to secede from the union. Charleston had once been home to the nation’s highest ratio of enslaved black people to whites. An estimated 40 percent of America’s slaves came through its harbor. That’s why he’d picked it. Six times over the past six months, he had visited the city—and Emanuel—while devising his plans. Once he had chosen his target, he’d struck up a conversation with one of its congregants, who had provided a useful detail: The church had Bible study on Wednesday nights.
It was perfect. Bible study would draw a smaller crowd than Sunday worship. It surely wouldn’t have any security. And a black church wouldn’t draw any white people. He didn’t want any of them to get hurt accidentally.
* * *
The young man drove down the same interstate that the church’s senior pastor, Clementa Pinckney, had sped down just a couple of hours earlier. The traffic-choked road connected Charleston to Columbia, the state’s capital, where Clementa lived not far from the young man, although they’d never met.
Clementa had just spent a hectic day embroiled in his other job, that of state senator. It was budget preparation season, an annual exercise in frustration given he was a black Democrat in a state where white Republicans maintained an easy grip on power. Over the two-hour drive to Emanuel, his cell phone rang incessantly. His immediate boss, the presiding elder, and about sixty members would arrive soon for the church’s quarterly conference, and the evening’s agenda wasn’t quite ready yet.
His wife, Jennifer, and his six-year-old daughter had joined him for some family time given that he had been so busy lately. Little Malana begged him to stop for ice cream at McDonald’s, but there wasn’t time. He promised to take her on the way home.
As soon as they arrived at Emanuel, his secretary, Althea Latham, rushed to help him print off and copy the agenda. Their relatively new presiding elder, the Reverend Dr. Norvel Goff, would be there soon. When Althea finished, Clementa walked over and set his hand on her left shoulder. He thanked her.
“You know you’re gonna owe me,” she teased.
“When’s your birthday?” he asked.
“Forget it,” she answered dryly. “My birthday is in December when everybody is thinking about Christmas.”
“You’re going to have Christmas in July then!”
Althea tried not to smile. “I’m gonna hold you to it.”
Clementa, she thought, looked unusually nice, even for him. Hair freshly cut, black suit fine, new shoes shining. When it was time for the quarterly conference to begin, she watched him persuade Malana to stay in his office with Jennifer. The winsome girl—Grasshopper, as he called her—clung to the smooth fabric of his pant leg until he gave her a parting hug and disappeared into the fellowship hall.
Presiding Elder Goff stepped in front of the group of almost sixty congregants. He and Clementa attended to church business, including the licensing of two new ministers, a first step in the long road to ordination. They also re-licensed a third, Myra Thompson. It promised to be a thrilling night for her.
In a few minutes, she would lead Bible study for the first time.
* * *
The young man reached Charleston at 7:48 p.m. and headed straight for the church. The parking lot, however, was full. Too full.
Something bigger than Bible study was going on.
Unhurried, he waited.
* * *
After the conference ended, Felicia watched most of those gathered stroll out into the waning sunset. The meeting had gone long, and the start of Bible study was now two hours behind schedule. Daniel Simmons Sr., a seventy-four-year-old retired minister who usually led the small group, wondered if they should postpone it. So did Reverend Pinckney, who faced an almost two-hour drive home.
They went back and forth. Stay. Cancel. Stay. Cancel.
DePayne Middleton Doctor, one of two women newly licensed moments earlier, spoke up: “Let’s just do thirty minutes of it.”
The group agreed and headed toward four round tables, the first one just outside the pastor’s office door near the altar, then extending in a row down the length of the room. Five or six white plastic folding chairs waited around each.
DePayne, already an ordained Baptist minister, normally led her four daughters into Bible study like ducklings behind her, each with a milkshake in hand. Now, she headed for the second table from the altar alone.
“Where are your girls?” Felicia asked.
DePayne explained their busy schedules as Myra, a retired educator and head of the church’s trustee board, joined them. Myra wore a classic black dress suit, her shoulder-length black hair smooth and dappled with gray, a headband holding it in place. Her face flushed with anticipation. This was her first time leading the Bible study, and she’d overprepared.
As the group settled in, Reverend Pinckney stood at the side door saying good night to the departing members, mostly older women whose skirts blew in the summer breeze as they headed out. He’d decided to stay.
Reverend Goff decided to go. He got into his black Cadillac, parked in the space closest to the side door where Clementa Pinckney bid people good night, and pulled out.
Cynthia Graham Hurd, a popular local librarian, had come to present a project about the church’s history to the quarterly conference. Now, as she prepared to head out, Felicia greeted her. They’d grown up at Emanuel together and often sat beside each other during Sunday services. Felicia invited her to stay.
“No, I’m leaving,” Cynthia demurred. She’d weathered an all-day managers’ meeting at the Main Library a few doors down, in addition to the quarterly conference. She was exhausted.
“But I love you Felicia Sanders,” Cynthia added.
“You love me, you’ll stay to Bible study,” Felicia teased back.
What could Cynthia say to that? She headed for the second table to sit with Myra, DePayne, and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, another licensed minister who was a close friend of hers. Retired pastor Dan Simmons joined them, and soon their Bibles covered the table.
Susie Jackson shuffled toward the third table, pocketbook hanging from her cane. She was eighty-seven and wore a gap-toothed smile familiar to everyone at Emanuel. Hers was Emanuel’s largest family, and Susie its matriarch. Felicia and her eleven-year-old granddaughter joined her. Aunt Susie was one of Felicia’s closest friends and most dedicated prayer partners.
Earlier, at 6:50 p.m., Felicia had received a text from her youngest child, Tywanza. “You still at Bible study?” he’d asked. Since it was starting late, the twenty-six-year-old had figured he could make it after all. When he arrived, Felicia’s granddaughter smiled big at her Uncle Wanza, a father figure, tall and hipster cool as he joined them at the third table.
Almost seventy years old, diabetic and hungry, Polly Sheppard had intended to skip this Bible study. A church trustee, she’d been in meetings all day. But she also had just run into Myra, one of her dearest friends, in the fellowship hall’s ladies’ room. Myra had begged her to stay. Now, Polly headed for the last of the four round tables, still tempted to duck out. If Myra looked away, she told herself, she still might, though it would be hard to get across the wide space to the doors without being spotted. Another old friend, Ethel Lance, the church’s sexton, sat near her.
Across the room, the door to Reverend Pinckney’s office stood open. He headed in that direction to check on his wife and daughter. Jennifer, an elementary librarian, had corralled Malana inside, on the other side of a thin wall from the fellowship hall, thankful that the normally energetic child was quietly eating some snacks and watching cartoons.
As Clementa turned to head back out for Bible study, she stopped him. “Hold up, mister. I need your credit card.” She needed to pay for their older daughter’s dance class.
“Here you go, darlin’.”
Clementa hugged and kissed Malana, then stepped through his office doorway and into the fellowship hall, where he sat alone at the first table. An empty chair sat beside him.
* * *
The young man waited until 8:16 p.m. By then, all but a dozen cars had left the church’s parking lot behind the building. He pulled through an open gate in back and headed toward a narrow strip with a few parking spaces along one side. He wasn’t certain which entrance to use; he’d never been inside. The front doors were way too conspicuous, elevated on the second floor and highly visible to cars and pedestrians on busy, four-lane Calhoun Street. The church had no back entrance, so he steered toward a set of double doors on one side of the building. They sat near the church’s back corner, away from the street.
The parking space closest to them, where elder Goff’s Cadillac had been, remained empty.
He eased into it and stepped out slowly. Despite thick humidity and temperatures that reached well into the nineties, he wore a long-sleeved gray shirt, dark pants, and Timberland-style boots, along with a black pouch that hung heavy on his waist.
It took him just ten steps to reach the tall wooden side doors, where he tugged first at the one on the right. It wouldn’t budge, so he tried the left. It opened inward with an industrial clank. The church left it unlocked to welcome all who came seeking God’s word. A narrow, wood-paneled hallway inside was made even more cramped by stacks of workbooks, a potted plant, and a console table. Along it, he passed an empty office on his left.
The brief hallway ended at a lobby with a red exit sign and an open doorway into a large room beyond it. Voices drew him forward. He flitted toward them, past a poster of the Ten Commandments, and stepped through the doorway.
Copyright © 2019 by The Charleston Post and Courier