COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) — The young pastor stood in a house filled with mourners ready to minister. His parishioner had been strangled, her body dumped.
The Rev. Eric S.C. Manning prayed with the victim’s devastated mother, reciting from Psalms, one of his favorite books in the Bible: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Days later, Manning led the funeral for the young woman.
It was his first eulogy for a murder victim.
“Standing there delivering the eulogy was hard but God brought me through that,” he said, recalling that emotional moment 14 years ago.
Over the years, Manning has dealt with tragedy and death, including in his own family.
And the prayers and comfort he knows how to give to people who have lost a loved one in a sudden, savage way prepared him for what is one of the toughest recent pastor assignments in America: being the spiritual leader of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine members, including the church’s beloved pastor, during a Bible study in June 2015.
“God, through every aspect, every juncture of my life, was preparing me for this time,” said Manning, 49, who was handpicked to shepherd a traumatized congregation that he admits he’s still figuring out how to lead. “No one’s ever seen this before.”
Gifts and graces for the situation
Manning is a dignified man who often wears one of the 30 to 40 bow ties he owns. He wore his clergy robe when he sat in a Charleston courtroom last month providing what he called “a ministry of presence.” Armed with his Bible, he listened as family members of victims and survivors gave graphic, emotional testimony during Roof’s federal trial. Sometimes, Manning placed his hand on a shoulder or gave a hug.
“He has all of the gifts and graces that a situation like that could call for,” said the Rev. Wendell Christopher Sr., who knows Manning and once led the Maryland church where the parishioner was strangled in 2002. “They couldn’t have appointed a better man, a better pastor than Rev. Manning.”
A jury swiftly convicted Roof on all counts. On Tuesday, the jury will decide his sentence. Some family members of victims appear torn over whether Roof should be sentenced to death.
Manning, who is against the death penalty, said the trial drained him. But he plans to be back in court, Bible in tow, on Tuesday for phase two.
Summoned to a traumatized church
Roof targeted the historically black church, often called Mother Emanuel, on June 17, 2015, because he wanted to start a race war, he told the FBI. He showed up at the Bible study, where the group welcomed him and handed him a sheet of verses. He sat with the victims for about 15 minutes and then, when they stood for prayers, pulled out a Glock .45-caliber pistol and fired 70 rounds at them.
Last June, a few days after the anniversary of the massacre, Manning was working in his office at Bethel AME in Georgetown, South Carolina, when his phone rang. It was Bishop Richard Franklin Norris, leader of the 7th Episcopal District that includes the scores of AME churches in South Carolina.
“I need you to go to Mother Emanuel,” Manning recalled Norris saying.
Manning took a step back and sat in a chair. Humbled by the request, he called his wife.
“I told him to follow his heart,” Andretta Manning, 47, said.
In June 2016, Manning became Emanuel’s new leader, replacing a pastor who had been reassigned after six months at the church following the Roof shootings.
‘God will continue to guide me’
Word soon spread across South Carolina that Manning was Emanuel’s new pastor. Mark Ross, a professor of theology at Erskine Theological Seminary’s Columbia, South Carolina, campus where Manning had earned his master of divinity degree in 2011, sent his former prized pupil an email offering prayers.
“He’s one of those students in your class that you’re expecting great things will come of him,” Ross recalled.
In the email exchange that Ross shared with CNN, Manning thanked his former professor for “being such a great inspiration” and wrote that, in retrospect, he could see “that the Lord was preparing me for such an awesome task (I never thought that it would be something such as this).”
“God will continue to guide me,” he wrote.
Manning had led four AME churches in South Carolina over a dozen years before his appointment to Emanuel. At each church, he learned the names of his parishioners so he could address them personally when he prayed for them.
“My husband is the type of person that, wherever he’s assigned, that’s where his heart is, with the people,” his wife said.
At Emanuel, Manning said he reached out to the families of the victims and the survivors to get to know them. “We talked, we cried. … We laughed,” he said.
Clifford Jones, a lifelong Emanuel member whose cousin, Ethel Lance, 70, died in the shooting, said he has been impressed with Manning’s devotion to the families and survivors who have suffered.
“We had those trials the last couple of weeks and he was there every day for the families,” said Jones, 56, a disabled Army veteran living in North Charleston, South Carolina. “That just shows he’s dedicated and he’s passionate, and he cares.”
Finding his call
Manning’s path to ministry started to form early, though he didn’t realize it at the time.
Manning recalled that a career placement questionnaire he filled out while in high school in the Philadelphia suburbs listed his possible career paths as the military, law and religion.
The military came first.
Manning spent six years in active duty in the Army in his late teens and early 20s, rising to the rank of sergeant. He laid eyes on his future wife when they were both stationed in South Korea. Andretta Manning came from a military family of eight siblings.
The couple married six months later, on January 25, 1991.
The Mannings later moved to Florence, South Carolina, where Manning’s mother had relocated. She soon left her church but Manning stayed, and he set out on his path to the ministry. His initial sermon in 1995 touched on walking in the spirit and not the flesh. He was ordained two years later.
“Looking back at it, I responded in the due season that God would have me respond,” Manning said.
Prepared for ‘difficult times’
By the late 1990s, the Mannings were parents of two young children. He moved the family to Maryland for a job in information technology, a career that was helping pay the bills while he also served as a pastor. The family later joined Mt. Moriah AME Church in Annapolis, where he became the associate pastor.
Manning would deal with several difficult deaths in his family.
In one instance, his father-in-law had beaten cancer in his lungs, but the disease then attacked his brain. Manning drove his wife back and forth on trips from Maryland to Rhode Island to care for her father. He ministered to her and her siblings, and eulogized his father-in-law at his funeral.
Manning’s wife said the experience “prepared him for the difficult times … having to be there for people that are close to you.”
His readiness to deal with a violent death was tested in September 2002 when his parishioner was violently killed.
“It was a murder; it was something I’d never dealt with. I never thought we would have to deal with,” he said of the death of Paula Edwards, the parishioner. “But we did.”
Forgiveness brings peace
Edwards, 34, was a mother of three girls and a school bus driver. Police found her body on September 7, 2002, said her mother, Betty J. Edwards, 79, a retired teacher.
She recalled that Manning visited the family the next day after church service. He told her, “God will give you the strength that you need.”
Edwards, of Severna Park, Maryland, said Manning: “just consoled me in what he said.”
Paula Edwards’ oldest daughter, Monica Alexander, also remembers Manning’s consoling advice. “You’re not going to forget but when you are ready in your life, you’ll have to find some type of forgiveness so that you can have peace,” Alexander, 29, of Glen Burnie, Maryland, recalled him saying.
Her father was sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing her mother.
‘I am here to serve you’
In the days leading up to his arrival at Emanuel, Manning prayed and fasted. He declined interviews, he said, because he wanted the congregation to learn about its new pastor in person, not through media reports.
He hoped to show parishioners he believed he was “a pastor after God’s own heart,” he said. He settled on scriptures from Psalms for his first sermon, including the familiar “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
He told his congregation “he didn’t know how to lead them,” he recalled, but he would lean on God’s guidance.
After the sermon, he said one member told him, “We’re going to take care of you while you’re here.” He responded: “No, I am here to serve you.”
Bearing a heavy load
Emanuel now draws a steady stream of visitors who know what happened there. Some come to worship, some come out of macabre curiosity.
“If they come to be a spectator, who knows, they might leave a worshiper,” Manning said. “If they come … out of curiosity, they may leave having a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.”
Manning believes that grace was visible as he and the families of the victims endured the trial last month. In one of the most chilling moments of the roughly weeklong proceeding, they watched a police video of Roof laughing after confessing to the shootings.
Like everyone, Manning felt the heavy weight of the trial. One night he asked his wife, “How much more do you think I can handle?”
He knows the congregation’s healing continues — and that they will heal together.
In his sermons, he often refers to the congregation as one: “We are Mother Emanuel.”
“We are a body of believers who have gone through a tragedy; the world has watched us,” he said. “We will continue to have resilience. … We will continue to believe that God is still in the midst.”