CHARLESTON, S.C. — The parade of Democratic presidential candidates visiting Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has left members of the tight-knit community with the uncomfortable feeling that the site of a shooting massacre could become a political prop.
The congregation and residents throughout Charleston on Sunday solemnly commemorated the fourth anniversary, which is Monday, of the racist killings at the historic church known as Mother Emanuel.
They welcomed the candidates’ messages of remembrance for the nine church members gunned down at a Bible study meeting that night and echoed the candidates’ calls for Americans to overcome the hatred that spurred the attack by a 21-year-old white supremacist.
Presidential hopeful Cory A. Booker, a senator from New Jersey, sat in the first row of pews at Mother Emanuel for a commemoration service Sunday. He received enthusiastic applause when the Rev. Eric Manning introduced him to the congregation as a “brother in Christ.”
The frequent campaign stops during the rest of the year, however, pose a challenge. Colleen Condon, chairwoman of the Charleston County Democratic Party, said the visits reopen emotional wounds for a community that would like to pray in peace.
“In some regards, I really hope they will stop putting that burden on the survivors and the family members who have to relive it with each candidate feeling like they need a personal audience,” she said. “It is an unfair burden on the community.”
At least five Democratic hopefuls have made the pilgrimage to Mother Emanuel this year, according to a tally by the Post and Courier in Charleston.
On his first swing through South Carolina after announcing his candidacy, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg met privately with Mr. Manning.
Mr. Booker met earlier this year at the church with family members of the shooting victims.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper led a discussion at the church with Polly Sheppard, 74, who survived the attack when the shooter spared her to “tell the story.”
In March, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas lay flowers in front of the church.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris visited the church before attending a town-hall-style meeting in February.
“I visited Mother Emanuel in Charleston earlier this morning to pay my respects to the nine victims of the 2015 shooting and leave some flowers in their memory. We’ve lost too many lives to gun violence — it’s far past time to pass common-sense gun safety reforms,” she said in a Twitter post that included a photo of her standing in front of the church.
“There’s definitely a reason behind the visits,” said Charleston resident Brendan McPherson, 25. “Are they truly here in earnest, or are they just here to say, ‘Hey, I’m here?’”
“Hopefully, our politicians — and I mean all politicians — won’t turn it into a zoo,” said Corither Key, 63, a retired teacher from Atlanta who is related to members of the Mother Emanuel ministry and attended the service Sunday.
Visiting the church does not appear to be a political necessity.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has not visited Mother Emanuel. She took a moment at a candidates forum Saturday in Charleston to pay her respects for the pending anniversary.
“This community has come together and made itself stronger in standing for racial justice, social justice and economic justice. And I admire it when people take something terrible that happens and make something good out of it,” she said.
After the Sunday service, which focused on forgiveness and building a legacy of worship, Mr. Booker said that visiting and experiencing Mother Emanuel was bigger than politics.
“This is not about politics; it’s about people,” he told The Washington Times. “No matter what the political season and no matter what the political cycle.”
Describing the congregation as a “bright spot in our nation,” Mr. Booker said, “They are showing a capacity for forgiveness and love and God to work through us.”
College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts said he didn’t see any political downside for candidates visiting the church.
“The tragedy brought the entire state together and was one of the most impactful events in South Carolina history,” he said.
Still, other sites of mass shootings do not get traffic from presidential candidates.
No one has stopped by the former Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which is now a memorial to the 49 people killed at the gay nightclub by an Islamic State-inspired gunman on June 12, 2016.
Most of the Democratic hopefuls marked the anniversary last week with tweets expressing solidarity with the gay community and calls for tougher gun laws.
None made the trip to Orlando.
The candidates also don’t flock to other scenes of mass shootings such as Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Mr. Hickenlooper is the exception. He traveled to Newtown in May to meet with families of the young victims and highlight his proposal to license gun owners.
South Carolina’s status as the fourth nominating contest and the first primary in the South does not fully explain the draw of Mother Emanuel.
Nevada hosts the third nominating contest, but candidates are not making a pilgrimage to the Las Vegas Strip where a gunman killed 58 people at a country music festival on Oct. 1, 2017, in the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history.
South Carolina Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said the racial aspect of the shooting, coupled with the early primary, helped make Mother Emanuel a magnet for candidates.
The historic church also invites a certain level of political discourse, he said.
“The AME church has a history of being a place that welcomes everybody and a place where people go to get their spiritual fill-up, but also a place where people go and talk to parishioners about what is important in the community,” said Mr. Seawright. “But at the end of the day, if you are going there just to check off a box, then I would recommend that you don’t go.”
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