Hundreds of worshipers gathered at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, N.C. Sunday morning for the first service held since 21-year-old Dylann Booth walked into a Bible study meeting and sat for an hour before killing nine of the attendees, including the church's pastor.
During the two-hour service, Rev. Norvel Goff, who has been appointed to lead the Charleston church, and other religious leaders shared a message of hope, forgiveness and reconciliation.
"I want you to know, because the doors of Mother Emanuel are open", the Rev. Norvel Goff Sr., a presiding elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, told the congregation, "it sends a message to every demon in hell and on earth."
Later, Mr. Goff added, "Some wanted to divide the race - black and white and brown - but no weapon formed against us shall prosper."
Roof, who is white, reportedly told authorities that he wanted to "start a race war" by murdering worshipers. He later confessed to police he "almost didn't go through with it because everyone was so nice to him."
"It's by faith that we are standing here and sitting here," Mr. Goff said during the service. "It has been tough. It has been rough. Some of us have been downright angry. But through it all God has sustained us."
The AP reports that Mr. Goff read the names of the dead and asked for prayers for their families, and also thanked law enforcement for finding the perpetrator of the crime so quickly and for guarding them as they prayed.
"A lot of folks expected us to do something strange and to break out in a riot. Well, they just don't know us," he said. "We are a people of faith."
The new interim leader added, "We have shown the world how we as a group of people can come together and pray and work out things that need to be worked out."
Mr. Goff also gently reprimanded the media for expressing shock that family members of the victims told Dylann Roof that they forgave him at his bond hearing earlier this week. "If you knew our daddy, you would know," he said, referring to God.
Emanuel is the oldest AME church in the south, and is referred to as "Mother Emanuel." The New York Times notes that many church leaders and politicians from around the country attended Sunday's service, including governor Nikki R. Haley, Representative Maxine Waters of California, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, and liberal activist DeRay McKesson.
Although mourning the loss of their pastor, Clementa Pinckney, and the other victims, congregants said they were relieved that "Mother Emanuel" was open again so quickly.
"I was looking forward to it being open because I was looking forward to going to church," Velma Washington, who was related to three of the victims shot last Wednesday, told the AP. "Everybody has to join together as one."
Meanwhile, Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, California, has called all churches to continue to pray for the community of Charleston, emphasizing that our response should be the opposite of what the gunman intended and listing ways that Christians can stand for peace, love and justice.
"The gunman's intention was to divide people," he wrote in a recent Facebook post, "So we must unite in our grief. His intention was to start a race war. We must be peacemakers. His intention was to further segregation, so we must model integration in our churches. His intention was to do an injustice, so we must stand for justice. And his intention was to do harm, so we must be agents of healing."
"Today, hatred is strong in our culture. But love is even stronger, and it is the only thing than can overpower evil," Warren added, commending the victims' relatives for showing forgiveness to the killer despite his lack of remorse.
He also shared the prayer that he will continue to use at his own church, in which he said: "Father, our hearts are broken again, as we see the result of sin in our broken world. We know that you are grieving for these who've lost their loved ones...we pray for comfort and peace and healing in the hearts of those who are overwhelmed with grief in this tragedy. Thank you for saying 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.' Father, you know what it is like to lose a son. Holy Spirit, we ask you to comfort the families, and the church, and the community."