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Local News

Two Years After Charleston Shootings, 'We Look At The Door When It Opens'

Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Howard Arnoff
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Flickr https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where nine people were murdered two years ago.

Saturday is the second anniversary of the shootings in which nine people were murdered at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

There will be events throughout the month to mark the tragedy and honor the victims. One consequence of the shootings is the presence of armed security guards at many churches. WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn has that story below. But first, Alexandra Olgin reports from Charleston on how some aspects of life in the city are very different.   

CHARLESTON'S NEW NORMAL

Melvin Graham is still trying to adjust to his “new normal.”  He’s a lifelong Charleston resident. He thinks his city has changed since June 17, 2015.

“I see a difference in the way people interact with each other. … People have told me over and over again I see and I feel a difference," he said.

On the other hand Graham is still on edge in the one place he used to feel the most safe – church.

“We look at the door when it opens. When cars turn around in the church yard, all heads turn. You have to be aware. Can’t take anything for granted anymore. Maybe in time we will get to the point where we won’t be looking over our shoulders but right now you have to,” Graham said.

Graham’s sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, was one of the Emanuel 9 victims. He sat through weeks of court proceedings this winter with his brother, Charlotte resident Malcolm Graham. While he’s relieved the killer is now locked up, he can’t shake what he learned.

"The facts of what happened are now fresh in your mind. So questions that you had now have answers to. You have answers you don’t want to know anymore, but they are in your head. Right now we are in the process of just trying to figure out a path forward," Graham said.

Graham says he learned that his sister was lying on the floor when Dylann Roof pumped seven bullets into her body.

We spoke the morning a gunman opened fire on Republican members of Congress while in a baseball practice.

Graham says the words of the previous attorney general Loretta Lynch still ring in his ears.

“You are now members a club no one wants to be a member of. And with each tragedy, each shooting, each killing, each massacre the club grows. And I know the pain that the families are feeling,” he said.

Church steeples are some of the most visible structures and the faith community is sprawling and deep-rooted. Chaplains, for example, often respond to 911 calls when there’s a tragedy involved to provide spiritual comfort.

Rich Robertson leads the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy. There is a sentiment among him and some other religious leaders that the city has come together as a way to show support for the victims and their families.

“There was care for the people while the investigation was going and al that logistical stuff. Leaders are listening to pain of the people and listening to what’s actually needed rather than just responding to the incident,” Robertson said.

One of the chaplains who responded to the Emanuel two years ago was Pastor Spike Coleman. He has stayed in contact with surviving family members. 

Coleman agrees the community has come a long way, but says there is still has a lot of work to do.

“One of the challenges is not to fall back into old patterns and routines and to assume the problem is not that bad. Assume that Dylann Roof is an isolated individual and to not see the systemic issues that we need to address,” Coleman said.

As part of that work Coleman worked with law enforcement to develop an emergency response plan for his church and encourages others to do the same.

And here’s Gwendolyn Glenn at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in west Charlotte.

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Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE News
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WFAE News
Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in West Charlotte has focused on security for many years but tightened it following the Charleston shootings.

FOR CHURCHES, MORE SECURITY

This past Wednesday evening at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in west Charlotte, a large group gathered for Bible study. With the anniversary of the Charleston shootings a few days away, safety was on the mind of Moses Fox.

“People are coming and going constantly and it did make me step back to say I see where our security members are and understand the steps they are taking to keep us safe at church but it made me step back to say what more can we do,” Fox said.

Also at Bible study is Barry Brown. He’s new to Charlotte and thinks the Charleston shootings makes the case for more police at churches.

“I think that churches will have to implement more police in general to help protect the service and various things about the service. I do feel safer when there is some police presence,” Brown said.

The Charleston shooting hit close to home at Friendship Missionary. Among its members is Malcolm Graham. His sister was one of the nine Emanuel victims.

Before the Charleston shootings, the church had armed guards during Sunday services. After Charleston, they added them to Wednesday Bible study.

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Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE News
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WFAE News
Jerome Johnson is a church security consultant for Friendship Missionary and other churches in the area.

In the past two years, many churches have turned to security consultant Jerome Johnson for help. His clients include Friendship, where he’s also a member. He says most churches in the area had little to no security in place. After Charleston his company received a flood of calls.

“And not just African American churches,” Johnson said. “Before hand very few had any protocols. For the most part it was the attitude of we’re going to pray and hope it doesn’t happen to us. After Charleston the light came on—it can happen here.

Officials at C N Jenkins Presbyterian Church near uptown accelerated their security plans.
Before Charleston, volunteers watched for unusual behavior, says Rev. Dr. Jerry Cannon. And he carried a panic button when preaching.

“After the incident there was an intentional effort to have a security presence,” Rev. Cannon said. “We’ve installed cameras that monitor the parking lot and doors and we have monitors so the office staff can see who comes to door and you get buzzed in, so that did happen since 2015. During Sunday morning services, we have people at all of our exterior doors but they greet you with a smile.”

Cannon says retired law enforcement officers trained the greeters what to look out for and how to respond to trouble.

All of this focus on safety and the potential for violence in the church has some wondering if this will change the mission of the black church. Historically, it is a place new arrivals to a city often went first to get acclimated and a protective haven where people turned for support.

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Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE News
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WFAE News
Armed security guard the Wednesday night Bible study entrance at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church

“People will always find comfort within the black church but their attitudes about safety in the church has changed,” said writer Herb Frazier, co-author of "We Are Charleston; Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel."

"The institution has always been under attack dating back to Jim Crow era, Civil Rights era and even into the 1990s and into today.  That was not new then it is not new today. It is part of the institutionalized hate some people have toward black churches and black people in general,” Frazier said.

And in the Charleston aftermath, most believe that open door welcome to strangers is still a part of the black church, but toned down in some respects.

"I don’t say a black church will be suspicious of a black person coming in who moved from another place, but some people might take a second look at someone who matches the profile of a Dylann Roof. That’s sad to say but I think people will think twice about that," Frazier said.

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Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE News
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WFAE News
Wednesday Bible study at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

Security consultant Johnson says he expects the alert level of church officials to ebb somewhat after the anniversary.

But that doesn’t mean churches won’t be on guard, says Frederick Robinson, executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries. He says the tragedy is etched in church officials’ minds and they will remain vigilant.