CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) – In same room where Dylann Roof killed nine church members, the pastor stopped during Wednesday night’s Bible study to tell a joke.
“One day, deacons are walking into church and they see Satan outside crying. They asked, ‘Why are you crying?’ ” the Rev. Eric S. C. Manning said in the basement of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Worshippers peered at him, waiting for the punchline.
“Satan said: ‘They’re blaming me for stuff’,” said Manning.
The room chuckled as Manning found a way to bring some ease to those grappling with the enormity of what happened in that room, on a Wednesday evening, in June 2015. Hours earlier, a judge handed down a death sentence to Roof.
Now, study participants peppered Manning, who was picked to lead the congregation after the killings, with questions about Roof, the death penalty and the theme of the study — repentance.
Someone asked: If repentance is so important, why is it one of the things least talked about in church?
Another asked: “You’ve seen Dylann Roof. It’s hard for me to comprehend someone could be so evil. Is it possible he’s possessed? Like Satan?”
Manning stood in a federal courtroom here on Wednesday as the court heard from nearly three dozen family members and friend of the victims. Manning was the last one to address Roof before the judge carried out the jury’s recommendation. Manning told the killer: “If you repent and see [His] forgiveness, he will surely do that for you.”
At Bible study, Manning recited scripture from the second chapter of Romans about God’s righteous judgment.
“If on that final day of judgment, you have no repentance, you have no lawyer to plead your case,” he said.
Looking up at the ceiling, the reverend laughed.
“I just thought about what I said there,” he said, referring to Roof, who represented himself in the sentencing phase.
The room again relaxed into laughter.
Manning tried throughout the hour to steer the Bible study back to the Scriptures, but before he could someone asked how the church felt about the death penalty.
“Well, the church can’t endorse the death penalty. We should acknowledge as Christ did, we meet people where they are,” Manning said.
An “amen” broke the silence.
Manning looked at the clock. The minutes ticked closer to 7. He had promised his wife of 25 years he would be home soon.
He pointed to a man who was in court on Wednesday.
The man said: “I listened to some of the dearest people imaginable confront Dylann Roof. Charleston looks on Mother Emanuel as the fountain of forgiveness but … I found myself siding with people who said ‘rot in hell’ — and that’s not the Christian thing to do.”
People shifted in their seats, and the reverend paused.
“What is in your heart is going to come out,” Manning told the man, “and I do not condemn the person” for feeling that way
It’s now well past 7.
Manning answered one more question from a parishioner, who asked him whether he felt the burden of the trial at any point.
“I reached that point yesterday of how much I could take,” Manning said.
Bibles were collected. People bowed their heads. And the Emanuel 9 were remembered in prayer.