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Norwich church service remembers 'Emanuel Nine'

Norwich — St. Mark Lutheran Church doesn’t want the “Emanuel Nine” to be forgotten.

The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders, the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons, the Rev. Myra Singleton Quarles Thompson and the Rev. Clementa Pinckney were gunned down by a white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015.

Sunday’s service at St. Mark, held outside the church at 248 Broadway, attracted more than 30 people. They sat in lawn chairs wearing masks and made sure to social distance. When Pastor Mary Robinson addressed those gathered, she stood in the sunlight on the grassy area directly in front of the steps to the church.

Robinson led parishioners in a confession and a litany remembering the lives of the nine churchgoers killed in Charleston while at their prayer group.

"It was a Wednesday night — a stranger walked in, and these people welcomed him and prayed together,” the confession reads. “The stranger wanted to ignite a ‘race war,’ he said, after he shot and killed them, denying them the very humanity he claimed for himself, claiming rights and privileges associated with ‘whiteness.’”

During the confession, the congregation responded when prompted by saying “Have mercy, O God, have mercy on us.”

“Assaults born of greed and murder continue propping up white privilege that is institutionalized in our church and nation, preventing us from recognizing the twin evils of racism and nationalism still perpetuated among us. And so we cry out, have mercy, O God, have mercy on us.”

So why would a predominantly white church in Norwich hold a service specific to the Emanuel Nine?

The murderer, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who became the first person sentenced to death for a federal hate crime was an Evangelical Lutheran. Robinson noted during her sermon, that she too is an Evangelical Lutheran. 

The connection to Roof, prompted the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America last year to mark June 17 as a day of commemorating the martyrdom of the Emanuel Nine.

“The whole Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at their Churchwide assembly last year specified that June 17 would be a commemoration for the Emanuel Nine, so the ELCA will always remember that,” Robinson said after the service. “The connection was with the killer being an ELCA person, but also a couple of those killed had attended the Lutheran Seminary in South Carolina, so we feel close to them.”

Robinson said with police brutality against Black people an issue across the country, the remembrance of the Emanuel Nine Sunday was all the more current. Throughout the service, she noted that racism is systemic and includes police as much as it does radical white supremacists.

Activists often compare the humane way Roof was treated by police — infamously buying him food from Burger King after peacefully apprehending him — to how protesters or even an unarmed black man selling loose cigarettes have been treated.

Neuen Dorf, a Bozrah resident who’s been with St. Mark for 20 years, said the honoring of the Emanuel Nine was necessary.

“There is a connection through the person who committed the atrocity, but that shouldn’t be the reason we’re having this commemoration,” Dorf said. “It should be because we’re in support of the (anti-racism) movement, and we strongly believe in that commitment.”

It was only the second outdoor church service at St. Mark since the COVID-19 pandemic began. A  band consisting of a bass guitarist, pianist and drummer playing gospel music backed or led many songs, adding a sense of joy to an otherwise somber service.

It was also only the second time Norwich resident Amanda Dougherty of Norwich came to St. Mark. She lives across the street from the church and went to last weekend’s outdoor service after Robinson knocked on her door and introduced herself. Dougherty is from Brazil, and when she moved away from the country about four years ago, she stopped going to church. She had attended a Catholic Church in Brazil.

“This is the first time I’ve been to an open church, meaning they welcome the LGBT community, which is great,” Dougherty said. “They talk about everything going on in the world in an honest way.”

During the litany, Robinson remembered the varied occupations of the Emanuel Nine: preachers, students, teachers, coaches, mentors, leaders, musicians, poets, barbers, custodians, bus drivers, veterans, librarians, advocates, public servants, legislators. Each label included a lesson.

“They were poets: Reveal your truth in language we have yet to discover,” the litany read. “They were barbers: Shape us as attentive caregivers to those around us. They were custodians: Protect those whose work ensures our safety. They were bus drivers: Carry us as companions in life’s unexpected journeys.”

Sunday’s service was fraught with, at the least, the inconveniences of COVID-19 and the scourge of racism. But, Robinson said, it was good for people to pray together in person again.

Robinson added that the present moment demanded Sunday’s theme.

“My heart is so heavy at this time when racism is evident,” Robinson said. “It’s been there, but now it’s so apparent. I just had to do something about it.”

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