Rev. Anthony Thompson stood at the podium in Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church Wednesday evening to lead a bible study session. He seemed to read people’s minds.
Many wanted to know how he was doing. He sought strength from the crowd, and his faith.
"It's been tough this week," he said about this first anniversary.
But among the hundreds of all backgrounds who came that night in remembrance of what happened here a year ago, he was among the most closely connected: his wife Myra, 59, was among the nine killed when a gunman opened fire at the historic church.
Thompson, who is not an official at Mother Emanuel, described his wife as a “pillar in the church” and in the Charleston community.
"There are other survivors," he reminded those listening. "Where do we go from here?"
Then, he revealed the source of his survival: "Through this whole ordeal, I had nothing to rely on but God."
Charleston, S.C., has spent the last 365 days looking for its own strength in order heal from the shooting that killed Rev. Thompson’s wife and eight others who had simply come to attend a bible study.
They were: Cynthia Hurt, 54; Suzie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. 74.
And Rev. Clementa C. Pinkney. 41, a state senator who was first elected to the legislature in 2000. Admirers say he had one of the brightest futures in South Carolina.
President Obama eulogized him in one of the most memorable moments of his presidency.
“He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the ‘sweet hour of prayer’ actually lasts the whole week long,” Obama said at Mother Emanuel last June. “That to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it's about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.”
But in the year since, after the cameras have left and the news cycle has moved on, Charleston looked for leadership. Former Mayor Joe Riley, who left office in January after a 40-year run, has been credited as a “healer” in a time when Charleston needed it.
“We all have a grieving process that’s different for everyone,” he said, noting that he was pleased with how Charlestonians reacted to the tragedy “We responded to hate and violence with love and affection.”
A number of the city's African American residents agree with Riley, saying that Charleston "has come together" since the incident.
Mother Emanuel, though still hurting is holding a 12-day observance, starting Friday, which includes a series of services, memorials and remembrances of the survivors, members of the church, and people in the community.
Church, civic, government and a myriad of leaders from across the country are expected to attend, including Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, and a performance by Rev. Shirley Caesar.
Part of the observance will be an “Acts of Amazing Grace Day” in which they are encouraging people to perform acts of kindness like reading to children, mowing someone’s lawn or even paying a compliment, according to the church’s website.
It’s all to counter the evil act committed by Dylan Roof, 21, who came to the church under the guise of a fellow bible student, but whose racist sentiments drove him to unleash a semiautomatic weapon on the unsuspecting churchgoers.
Roof has been held in custody since his arrest several days after the shooting. Both federal and state prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against him. His federal trial begins in November.
The killings opened a larger national debate on race and eventually led to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signing a bill to remove the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds, where it had flown for more than 50 years.
Rev. Thompson noted the current mood in Charleston, where an estimated 40 percent of enslaved Africans disembarked from ships that had taken them from their homes forever.
Despite that history, Thompson was hopeful.
"People are talking now,” Thompson said at the bible session. "The flag came down. It's a sign that we have to make some changes."