The South Carolina church where nine people died in a gun attack by an alleged white supremacist less than a week ago reopened to worshippers on Sunday.
Worshippers attended the first service at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church since Wednesday, when Dylann Roof, 21, is alleged to have pulled a gun on members of a Bible study group. The church pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a state senator, was among the nine people who were killed.
Uniformed police officers were posted on both levels of the sanctuary. The service began with prayer and songs and a message of love, recovery and healing. The proceedings then became more solemn as the victims’ names were read and the music’s tempo slowed.
At 10 a.m., church bells rang out across Charleston, which is known as the “Holy City”.
“We still believe that prayer changes things. Can I get a witness?” the Reverend Norvel Goff asked, to which the congregated responded “Yes.”
“But prayer not only changes things; it changes us,” he said.
“It’s been rough,” Goff said of the days since the shooting. “Some of us have been downright angry, but through it all, God has sustained us and encouraged us. Let us not grow weary.”
Goff vowed that he and others would “pursue justice and we’re going to be vigilant and we are going to hold our elected officials accountable to do the right thing.”
Despite the grim circumstances the congregation had faced, the welcoming spirit Roof exploited before the shooting was still alive, church members said.
On Saturday, Harold Washington, 75, said he expected the sanctuary to host many newcomers after the shooting shattered the group’s sense of peace and security.
“We’re gonna have people come by that we’ve never seen before and will probably never see again, and that’s OK,” he said. “It’s a church of the Lord, you don’t turn no body down.”
Also on Saturday, authorities said they were investigating a website that contained a racist manifesto apparently written by Roof, who is white. All nine people who died were black. The provenance of the website, which contained a cache of photographs of the 21-year-old in which he was seen holding a pistol or standing beside the Confederate flag, was unclear.
As news of the website emerged, hundreds of people rallied at South Carolina’s state house in Columbia on Saturday night to demand that lawmakers remove the Confederate flag from its grounds.
In the wake of the shooting, prominent Republicans and Democrats have called for the flag – to many, a potent symbol of America’s racist past – to be taken down. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney added his voice to the calls on Saturday. President Barack Obama said on Friday that the flag deserved to be in a museum, not flying in the state capital.
At the rally in Columbia, Stephanie Bradley, a black woman and mother of three young children, told the Guardian that because of the shooting she had to explain to her children for the first time what the Confederate flag meant.
To her the flag has always immediately brought to mind racism inflicted on black people throughout the course of US history.
“I see the KKK, I see burning crosses, I see burning churches, I see raping, lynching, I see all of that,” she said.
On Sunday, events to show solidarity with the victims were planned throughout the city and beyond, including the synchronised ringing of church bells at 10am ET (1400 GMT). South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, and her family were to attend the service at Emanuel.
The investigation into the shooting was continuing. In a statement, the FBI said it was investigating the website apparently written by Roof. “Charleston police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are aware of postings on a website allegedly attributed to Dylann Roof, the suspect in the 17 June 2015 shootings at Emanuel AME Church … We are taking steps to verify the authenticity of these postings.
“Because this is an ongoing investigation, neither the Charleston police nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation is able to release further details at this time.”
The site began circulating on the internet on Saturday. It contains a 2,444-word statement that, if penned by Roof, would shed light on the racist ideology that led him to the Emanuel AME church in Charleston on Wednesday.
The accompanying photographs reveal that Roof toured historical sites across South Carolina that have links to the civil war era and slavery, including graveyards and plantation sites.
However, data encoded into the images, which may have provided clues as to when they were taken, appears to be unreliable.
The website was created in February by a registrant who listed his or her name as Dylann Roof. Under a section entitled “An Explanation”, the website appears to allude to the forthcoming massacre.
“I have no choice,” it states. “I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country.”
The statement adds: “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
Roof’s former stepmother, meanwhile, said the 21-year-old had been affected by “internet evil”.
“He was locked in his room looking up bad stuff on his computer,” Paige Mann, who is divorced from Roof’s father, told NBC News. “Something on the computer drew him in – this is internet evil.” The Associated Press contributed to this report.