By Barney Blakeney
Rev. Eric S. Manning came to Emanuel AME Church a year ago in the midst of the congregation’s gut wrenching torture having only a year earlier experienced the most horrific tragedy any congregation could imagine – the gruesome murder of nine of its members , including its pastor, during a Bible study session. The church was being subjected to financial scrutiny as millions of dollars flowed from compassionate donors. Manning had to guide the congregation through that unprecedented recovery and lead his flock through the maze that was created by constant media attention that only heightened in November with the trial of the confessed murderer.
Leading Emanuel , Manning knew would be an honor – the prominence, the history of the oldest AME Church congregations south of the Mason Dixon, a church congregation with such legacy and majesty – the Pennsylvania native knew would not be easy. The haunting memories of June 17, 2015 almost overshadowing the task, Manning’s first sermon was titled “Allow The Lord To Lead”. It was appropriate, he said, because he had more questions than answers. But he knew God wouldn’t forsake him or his congregation.
The survivors of the victims and those among the congregation had set a tone. Two leaders before him had set the stage for healing. His experience as Chaplain for the Georgetown Police Department, board member for AMI kids, Family Justice Center, Georgetown County Community Relations Council, and a mentor in the Georgetown School district taught him to listen. So that’s what he did. Manning listened to congregation members, church leaders and others from the community. He felt he’d made the right decision to come to Emanuel, to accept the daunting challenge the opportunity provided.
And yes, Manning saw his charge at Emanuel as an opportunity. Emanuel still is a church with a prominent place, a historic place, in the community, said the former pastor of Bethel AME Church in Georgetown. As the theme of the first Bible study after the tragedy suggested, Amazing Grace taught Emanuel not to fear evil. Emanuel had faced evil and continued to shine as a beacon of light. And as people from around the world walked through its doors each Sunday, Emanuel’s message of love resonated so that they took that message back to their homes with them, Manning is convinced.
So two years later as Emanuel observes the second anniversary of the June 17 tragedy, Manning says God has placed him in a position of influence at a time when there is so much hatred in the world. We’ve talked so much about change, Manning says, but this second anniversary must be about implementing change. A series of events to address hatred and replace it with love have been planned. If Emanuel fails to act it would be a disservice to the memories of those nine victims and their survivors, Manning believes.
The events being conducted will explore issues like segregated schools, discriminating law enforcement practices and gentrification. They are designed to help change people’s mindset as God changes their hearts, he said. Over the next two weeks Emanuel will be writing its next chapter as it remembers the previous chapter. Manning hopes people see the goodness of the Lord and the forgiveness Christ offers.