As Dylann Roof trial continues, Mother Emanuel relives a tragedy and copes through faith

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Marlena Davis does not plan on attending Dylann Roof's ongoing capital hate crimes trial, unless she is asked to be there.

Davis is a lifelong resident of Charleston and member of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where, 18 months earlier, Roof opened fire on a bible study and killed nine parishioners. But she had heard all she needed from the killer's mouth after she caught a public radio segment last week featuring a clip of Roof's confession.

A weariness fell over her, she said, and she wept.

"What I heard was not what I had imagined — I didn't expect his demeanor to be so casual in talking about what he had done," Davis, 57, said Sunday, after she'd attended a worship service at Emanuel. In the sanctuary following benediction, Davis fought back tears as she shared her experience.

"While everyone is reading it, we are reliving it." — Pastor Eric Manning of Emanuel AME

As Monday neared, and with it a second week of testimony in Roof's trial, leaders and members of the church said the proceedings have brought old anguish back to the surface. Roof, they said, carried out a cruel and heinous act in a place they rely on as a haven. While Roof's guilt isn't in doubt here, the trial is a major test of their faith, they said.

"Because I have faith, I know that God is with us no matter what," said Davis, co-chair of the women's ministry at Emanuel. "Sometimes I'm on the good side of it, and sometimes I'm not there."

The Rev. Eric Manning, who has been appointed to take over pastoral duties at Emanuel for the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney, attended Roof's trial every day since it commenced on Wednesday. The federal courthouse is located at Broad and Meeting streets, less than a mile from the church.

"Everyone has been severely impacted and its just been hard for a lot of us," Manning said in his office at Emanuel. "While everyone is reading it, we are reliving it. I think that's one of the things that people probably forget."

Emanuel AME is pictured just before Sunday morning worship service begins, on Dec. 11, 2016.Aaron Morrison/Mic

Clear blue skies and sunshine greeted worshippers on Sunday morning. The light reflected off of the Gothic style church's pearly white exterior on Calhoun Street. Christmas wreaths decorated the building's three main doors.

Inside, the pastor wrapped up a Sunday school lesson for a dozen or so early risers. Members exchanged hugs. As more people arrived for service, children emerged from their separate Sunday school classes. One child used an iPad to take selfies, while an organist played the overture to open the worship service. The sanctuary, which can hold up to 2,500 people, was less than half full.

"Good morning, Mother Emanuel," Jean Ortiz announced warmly to the congregation, welcoming members and visitors to the service. "If you woke up this morning with Jesus on your mind, you are armed and dangerous."

"Anytime you cross the threshold of Mother Emanuel, you are no longer a visitor. You are family."

Children kneel at a memorial outside of Mother Emanuel in July 2015.Jim Watson/Getty Images

The spirit of that welcome is undoubtedly what governed members who met Roof almost a year and half ago. On the evening of June 17, 2015, he sat with parishioners for a regular Wednesday bible study session. Pinckney, the church's pastor, invited Roof to pull up a seat next to him. 

As the session wrapped up and members bowed their heads and shut their eyes for a closing prayer, Roof opened fire. Pausing to reload his gun several times, the then-21-year-old Roof fired as many as 77 bullets in the church's fellowship hall, prosecutors, investigators and witnesses said in trial testimony.

In court on Wednesday, survivor Felicia Sanders, whose son, Tywanza, was killed in the massacre, gave a heart-wrenching account of events, at times looking over at Roof who did not return her gaze. The next day, those who attended the trial viewed gruesome crime scene photos showing the lifeless bodies of the Emanuel Nine. And on Friday, prosecutors played videotape of Roof's unambiguous confession to the killings in court.

"I thought everybody was going to run out the door," Roof said during an interview with FBI agents. "But nobody did."

Dylann Roof is seen on a video uplink, in a South Carolina court, in 2015.Pool/Getty Images

"I had to do it," he confessed, while professing his identity as a white supremacist and stating his desire to use Emanuel as a flashpoint for a race war with blacks. At certain points in the confession, Roof could be heard laughing. 

During Manning's Sunday sermon, the pastor said he had been asked a number of times whether it was okay to be angered by the trial. In search of an answer, he told congregants, he turned to the book of Psalms. In it, he said, believers can find a wide range of emotions and expression of faith, including verses on how to seek joy amid immense sorrow.

"It's safe to say many of us have lamented this past week — how can we have joy in the midst of what we have gone through?" Manning said. He quoted a verse in the sixteenth chapter of Psalms stating that, in God's presence, there is fullness of joy.

Emanuel church shooting survivors Polly Sheppard, left, and Felicia Sanders, speak at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.Alex Wong/Getty Images

As his sermon built up to a crescendo, several members were on their feet. Manning wiped away his own tears.

"We must have our minds made up to still have joy," he said. "We have to understand that God is bigger than anything the world can throw at us."

After the service, Davis said she hasn't arrived at feeling joyful yet, but that the sermon was a needed reminder.

"It just helps me to know that everything is going to be alright," she said.

The Roof trial isn't the only court proceeding weighing on the greater Charleston area. On Dec. 5, two days before the Roof proceedings began, a state judge declared a mistrial in the murder case against Michael Slager, the former North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer who fatally shot Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who fled during a April 2015 traffic stop.

Locally, people were furious that not even bystander video footage of Slager shooting Scott in the back as he ran was enough to produce a guilty verdict. "If Charleston was indeed beginning to change to see everyone as equal then we would not have had a mistrial," Manning said. "Murder is murder."

Chuck Burton/AP

The outcome of that case, coupled with revelations in the trial against Roof, has caused some here to wonder if the community has healed or grown at all. In interviews, area residents said that people aren't as divided about the Roof case as they have been about police brutality in black neighborhoods.

"People came together and put flowers out on the church,  just to say thank you for being you," longtime Charleston resident James Wells, who is white, said in an interview. He has never attended service at Emanuel, but said he recognizes that racial hatred and unfair policing are still issues in the state.

"We will overcome this, I believe that," Wells, 57, said. "I'm saying what I'm seeing."

Emanuel AME sits in the historic district of Charleston, a city of more than 132,000. Charleston County, which encompasses North Charleston, is about 68% white and 28% black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

While whites and blacks view policing differently here — 22.5% of white South Carolinians thought police are using deadly force too quickly versus 78% of blacks who thought the same thing, according to a June 2016 poll by University of South Carolina researchers — the question of whether Roof should face capital punishment is less divisive.

Nine ribbons representing the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shooting hang on the church gates in June 2016.Chuck Burton/AP

According to the poll, 55.3% of all respondents said Roof should be put to death if he's found guilty, while 38.9% said he should get life without parole. In the same poll, however, blacks preferred life without parole for Roof more than whites.

At Emanuel, leaders and members have gone out of their way to resume a sense of normalcy at the church. "It's still a place where people come to be restored," Manning said. "This is still a house that has been dedicated to God, where people come to worship to be revived, to be delivered, to be set free."

It's also still a place for celebration. After Sunday service, members were invited to the fellowship hall — the same room in which Roof gunned down the Emanuel Nine — to celebrate life. Cake and ice cream were served for those celebrating a December birthday.

For Davis, that's a sign of victory. "It's a testament that good is always going to win," she said. "Good triumphs over evil."