At 12:00 this afternoon, a crowd gathered by the entrance of the Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Inside, the church was packed with people who had come to pray in the wake of the mass shooting that took place shortly after 9:00 last night at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church nearby. Nine people were killed, six women and three men, including the pastor of the church, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, also a state senator.
Outside, organizers handed out bottles of water in the sweltering heat as community religious leaders spoke words of comfort to people who sorely needed them on a day that left Charlestonians and those around the country in a state of shock and disbelief. The overwhelming message from those who spoke at the prayer gathering: We will not let this tear us apart. We can allow this tragedy to unite us. Where there is unity, there is strength. We have faith, we have hope, and we have love.
A crowd gathers for a prayer vigil outside the Morris Brown AME Church on June 18, 2015.
As the crowd swelled, the sound that began in the center of it was only a hum at first, and then grew until the reporters and cameramen who had set up nearby could hear the words. There were hymns of salvation, songs of hope.
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome, some-day
This was not the first time that famous song had been sung in the streets of the Holy City. But although the victims in this sad echo of violent decades past were black and the suspected shooter is white, the crowd came from all parts of the city. Religious leaders in dark suits sang next to young professionals in khakis and buttoned-up shirts, and mothers leading children in sunglasses and tee shirts. One of the ministers who spoke to the gathering asked attendees to look to each side, and then in front of and behind them.
“What you see is the face of Charleston,” he said.
Down the street at Dixie Furniture, another group gathered on unsold chairs and couches to watch coverage of the vigil and the aftermath of the shooting on television. After President Obama delivered his message, a woman named Latrice Smalls stood up and gave an impromptu sermon. She was related to one of the victims, but she had not been able to find a seat in the crowded church.
“That’s okay, because God sent me to this place for a reason,” she said. She asked the other mourners to hold hands and pray with her. Not only for justice, but also for forgiveness. Even for the shooter. The nine people he killed last night would have wanted that, she said. At the end of the prayer, she asked the strangers in the room to hug each other. They did.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has announced that the city has established the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund to support the victims’ families. Click here for donation information.