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Five years after shooting, Emanuel uneasily adapts as pilgrimage site

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP/RNS) — Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to livestream its services, visitors to “the Holy City,” as Charleston is sometimes called, could often be spotted wandering outside, taking photos of the façade. Worship on a given Sunday might include people from across the U.S. and some foreign countries.

Such was the curiosity and reverence for the social hall on the ground floor, where nine African American church members were killed by a white supremacist in 2015, that a sign eventually went up asking visitors not to photograph the space.

Wednesday (June 17) marks five years since the murders at a Wednesday evening Bible study. In that time, Emanuel has continued to serve as spiritual home to its members. At the same time, they recognize that the oldest AME church in the southern United States has also become something else. A pilgrimage site. A tourist destination.

Emanuel members remain divided over what to make of these visitors. Liz Alston, the church’s historian and a longtime member, said at first “there were a few members who felt invaded by having strangers every Sunday.” Her take on things is different. “I was the one who would be called in to talk to many of the people,” Alston said. “It was just a sense of giving back that we would welcome (visitors) into our pews.”

“You’re welcome to come in,” she would say. “We’re Christians.”

The transformation began almost immediately, and without any forethought. “The murders were just so, so horrifying,” recalled Celeste Wiley, the visual materials archivist for the South Carolina Historical Society. “It wasn’t even 24 hours before the sidewalk in front of the church was just overflowing with tributes that had been left.”

Upon seeing this, Wiley said, “I immediately thought, ‘Oh, someone needs to take care of those.'” In the middle of June in the South Carolina Lowcountry, she said, you can expect “torrential rainstorms half an hour every day.”

At first, volunteers at the church periodically moved the makeshift memorials off the street to protect them, but quickly the church was overrun.

“It was also upsetting for a lot of the congregation to have that there,” Wiley said.

Eventually the Charleston Archives, Libraries and Museums Council stepped in. This consortium of cultural institution professionals came together in 1989 in the wake of Hurricane Hugo to protect historical memory and archival materials from natural disasters. Now it was a human disaster that was calling the council to action.

Almost a year after the shooting, “A Tribute to Mother Emanuel Church,” a digital archive co-curated by several local archival initiatives in partnership with Emanuel, opened to the public, funded in part by the College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Initiative.

At the South Carolina Historical Society, in addition, the collection of letters to the church extends 75 linear feet. There is correspondence from 47 states and five countries in one box alone. One letter from overseas was addressed simply, “To the Church in South Carolina.”

“That’s the only thing that’s on the envelope, and it got me,” Wiley said.

Emanuel’s pastor, Eric S.C. Manning, admitted that many members are still in various stages of grief and recovery. “It gets weary” having to tell the story again and again, he said, and the steady stream of visitors forces some members to relive the tragedy again and again.