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Churches Try To Stay Safe — And Keep Their Open-Door Policies


This morning, the doors at the historic black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. are opening once again. The congregation is still coming to terms with the shooting of nine of its members. Authorities say the gunman was Dylann Roof. The 21-year-old has been charged with nine counts of murder. Felicia Sanders, who lost her 26-year-old son, said this to Roof at his bond hearing Friday.


FELICIA SANDERS: Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But, as we say in a Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.

MARTIN: Dr. Charles Watkins is the reverend at the nearby Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church. When we reached him yesterday, I asked whether it surprised him that the shooter sat for an hour with the victims before killing them.

DR CHARLES WATKINS: Certainly, it was alarming but not surprise at all. The only way to share the word is by invitation - to have someone physically and spiritually engaged. And the fact that he sat that long, I think, either reveals that he's having second thoughts; maybe even that some of what's being said is working a bit. So, no, I'm not surprised at all. I'm not surprised that everyone got so comfortable with him sitting there, either. That you hear that a lot is, folk ask, couldn't you see, didn't you know? No, you probably couldn't. You probably couldn't.

MARTIN: Because it's an open door policy. So even though this is an African-American church...


MARTIN: ...And this is a young white man who was a stranger to those people, it wasn't unusual that they would've just welcomed him in.

WATKINS: Absolutely not, which is - one thing that has not been said, that the three large downtown churches - we have Caucasian membership as well.

MARTIN: Is there any part of you that is concerned that, even though it is a fundamental part of your faith to minister to others and to keep doors open and to welcome whomever comes, is there a part of you that's concerned that, because of how this tragedy unfolded, that it will cause some congregations to be more reticent to share, to be as open, to be as welcoming to strangers?

WATKINS: That is a - an appropriate question. I have - wrestling with that even as early as this morning, as I'm meeting with leaders of my church, discussing security issues, having to constantly remind them, and myself, that we cannot veer from this open house policy. We cannot allow evil to shut us down. Maybe more vigilant and keeping your eye on who's coming and maybe a little more aware of the strangers that are in our midst, but essentially doing things the way we've always done it. That's how the word has been spread. We have to stay the course. We have to stay the course.

MARTIN: May I also ask you because it moved so many - we heard the families of the victims give testimony at the arraignment of Dylann Roof where they were able to speak to him directly. He was behind closed doors. And what they said was so surprising to so many - the level of their forgiveness. They said explicitly...


MARTIN: ...That they forgave him for killing their loved ones. Did it at all surprise you? Did it seem just as it should be?

WATKINS: Just as it should be. The evidence of discipleship would be in our willingness to forgive even the atrocities, as this is certainly. And you understand, to be forgiven we have to forgive. So, no, I wasn't surprised at all, and it really showed who we are. The thing that evil needs to understand is that you picked the wrong group. You selected the wrong folk. We'll not be deterred. We'll not be turned around.

MARTIN: This past week, there have also been calls for the removal of the Confederate flag that flies over the statehouse in Charleston. It was left to fly at full staff this past week. How do you look at that flag? What does it mean to you, and do you think it should come down?

WATKINS: That, quite frankly, is a political issue. I do have personal concerns, but they're not relevant in terms of who I think we are as Christians and how we need to move forward. That issue is so divisive for a number of reasons. There are those who view that flag as heritage. And I don't think you can argue against that, totally. Now, is it divisive? Does it represent a nation torn apart? Yeah, it certainly does. It certainly does. But I would rather not include that in this argument. The common denominator in this tragedy, with all the others that we've seen in the past months, is clearly the gun. It doesn't take much to get one, obviously. That's where I think we need to do some work.

MARTIN: Charles Watkins is the reverend of the Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WATKINS: Thank you. God bless. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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