Rev. Eric Manning spoke with Southern Living about how he hopes the Emanuel Nine  Memorial will help heal the community and inspire forgiveness in all who visit.
Charleston Emanuel AME Church
Credit: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This afternoon marked the 200th anniversary of the historic Mother  Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Today, three years and three weeks after a mass shooting claimed nine innocent lives inside its hallowed walls, a still-grieving community was finally given its first look at the memorial erected in their honor.

"It doesn't take away from the church," explained Rev. Eric Manning, "it elevates it."

The Emanuel Nine  Memorial is the product of a quiet, multi-year collaboration between the families of the victims and architect Michael Arad.

"He listened to them, talking to them and learning their stories," Manning, the current pastor of Mother Emanuel A.M.E., recalled. "They poured all of the information into Michael, and Michael came out with a design."

The result, two sloping fellowship benches facing each other, has an enchanted, understated beauty. "An opening between the two benches widens towards the entrance, welcoming strangers to enter and join in community," a release from the church reads. "The high backs of the benches arc up and around, like sheltering wings. They provide a sense of enclosure, and like a pair of arms, cradling visitors inside this space."

Emanuel Nine Memorial Fellowship Benches
Credit: Courtesy Dbox for The Mother Emanuel Nine Memorial / Handel Architects

Arad is no stranger to designing a monument with so much painful symbolism—he spent the better part of a decade bringing the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to life in New York City.

"Michael was very intentional," Manning told Southern Living. "We were all intentional in making sure the families had an active role."

Erecting the Emanuel Nine  Memorial involved a dramatic transformation of the church grounds. The Post and Courier reports that it includes two main areas—the victims' courtyard on the west and a survivors' garden on the east—in spaces previously occupied by parking spaces, air-conditioning units, and a wooden handicapped ramp.

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Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, an Emanuel leader who served on the design committee, told the Courier that he believes visiting it "will take you on a journey from death to survival."

"It's going to be very personal," he continued. "I think people will interpret it personally. It's abstract enough for people to do that. What I get from it is a warm blessing embrace as I enter."

Emanuel Nine Memorial Names Fountain
Credit: Courtesy Dbox for The Mother Emanuel Nine Memorial / Handel Architects

Manning, who was been with Mother  Emanuel since June 2016, said his hope for the memorial is that it inspires forgiveness in all who visit it. "But forgiveness doesn't mean we've forgotten the horrific act," he clarified. "It means we've released ourselves."

Family members  of  the  Emanuel Nine  say they hope the Memorial will bring people together to resolve their differences, reverse hate,  end gun violence, and work toward justice with unyielding love and compassion.

"It would be my sincere prayer that the memorial sparks forgiveness within a person's heart and spirit," Manning told Southern Living. "Forgiveness is something this world needs more of."