CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The Rev. Norvel Goff will walk into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for Bible study keenly aware of the crushing burden now on his shoulders: to be a comforter, a teacher, a man of God and most powerfully, a leader of a church whose heart is heavy with the tragic loss of its senior pastor and eight members.
"Even in the midst of tragedy, we still must press forward, and move forward with the understanding that we can still make this world, this community, and our nation a better place to live by living out our faith, not sitting down on it," Goff said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The 65-year-old Goff was named interim leader of the historic church called "Mother Emanuel" at one of the lowest points in its nearly 200-year history. But the Georgetown, South Carolina, native said the church won't dwell on the past, although the slain included the church's senior minister, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man, faces murder and gun charges in the church attack police say was racially motived. Roof sat with the Bible study group for about an hour last Wednesday night before he allegedly opened fire.
Roof had told a friend he would do something "for the white race" and posed in photos displaying Confederate flags and burning or desecrating U.S. flags.
Goff will share the stage with President Barack Obama on Friday, as the president delivers the eulogy at Pinckney's funeral at an arena near Emanuel because it has thousands of more seats than the small church. Several of the victims' families already are expressing feelings of forgiveness toward Roof, something Goff supports even while acknowledging the difficulty of getting to that point.
"In order for us to begin the healing process, we must forgive as we have been forgiven," said Goff, a graduate of Morris Brown College and Yale University School of Divinity. "That does not mean that the process of justice does not continue."
Goff is used to walking the line between church and state, having run for state Senate in Connecticut in the 1980s and serving as the majority leader of the Hartford City Council. He's also led NAACP branches in Hartford and Rochester, New York, along with pastoring churches there and in nearby Columbia, South Carolina.
Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, who worked with Goff during his time in Rochester leading that city's Baber African Methodist Episcopal Church and NAACP branch, said there is no one better to shepherd that flock.
While in Rochester, Goff — as leader of the local NAACP branch — convinced black employees to let him take their complaints to Kodak, instead of the government and then convinced Kodak to voluntarily investigate racism and discrimination at its facility. The Rochester-based company agreed — and ended up paying out $13 million in restitution to the affected employees, all without government involvement.
"There is something about him that exudes confidence that it will be OK," Slaughter said.
Goff is currently the presiding elder of the Edisto District of the 7th Episcopal District of South Carolina, which includes Emanuel. He was inside Emanuel meeting with Pinckney only hours before Roof entered the church a week ago Wednesday night, and rushed back after hearing of the shooting, only to be pointed to a nearby hotel where family members were gathered. His healing ministry at Emanuel began.
As the presiding elder, it would have been his place to be there if tragedy struck any church, so Goff as interim pastor "fits hand in glove," said the Rev. Dr. Juenarrl Keith, who leads the neighboring Mount Pleasant District. The church leaders will gather at Emanuel later this year to select a new pastor.
The country's attention has been diverted from the shootings in Charleston to attempts to take down the Confederate flag off the Statehouse grounds the nearby state capital, Columbia. Goff supports calls to take down the flag — "Symbolic as it may be, it represents something that is not the best of us," he said.
But he said that cannot take over his or Emanuel's attention at this time.
"The focus of us this week is the homegoing celebration of nine persons who lost their lives," Goff said. "Most certainly the flag is an issue, but there are other issues that need to be addressed in addition to that. There is a time and place for everything."
Jesse J. Holland covers race, ethnicity and demographics for The Associated Press. Contact him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jessejholland .