Less than two months before his death in a mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney led a service at his church calling for an end to racism, bigotry, and violence.
He started with a prayer.
“May we remember that the name Emanuel means ‘God with us,’ and so we invite You and we welcome You into this place,” Pinckney said. “And we pray that You would make Emanuels out of all of us, that we may be filled with Your love. For we know that only love can conquer hate, that only love can bring all together in Your name.”
The program came on the heels of the police shooting of unarmed black man Walter L. Scott in North Charleston, an event that shocked the community’s conscience and stirred discussions of racial inequality. Pinckney, a state senator, was joined by several prominent political and religious leaders — black and white, Jewish and Christian.
No one knew at the time that Pinckney’s prayer foreshadowed one of the worst acts of terrorism in Charleston’s modern history: a mass shooting during a Wednesday night prayer service at Emanuel AME that left nine people dead and a city in mourning.
Police in Shelby, N.C., arrested church shooting suspect Dylann Roof before noon last Thursday following an all-out manhunt by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said the arrest came about after an alert citizen in North Carolina called police to report a suspicious vehicle.
Even with a suspect in custody, some community and religious leaders remained ill at ease. Bomb threats were reported at a solidarity vigil in a Greenville AME church and at a coroner’s press conference in North Charleston.
Jerod Frazier, minister of social justice at Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, said his congregation would likely have a lookout posted at its entrance during its Sunday worship service.
“We consider that to be a sacred time, and this threatens that peace,” Frazier said last week. “If someone black goes into a white church or someone white goes to a traditionally black church, heads are going to turn around and say, ‘What’s going on now?’ It’s kind of a broken peace, if you will, a disturbance of peace.”
Morris Brown AME, a historic African-American church in downtown Charleston, held a prayer service at noon Thursday that quickly overflowed into the street. Hundreds gathered as speakers stood in the blistering heat to pray aloud, sing hymns and spirituals, and offer words of encouragement. Members of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations were present. The crowd sang “Amazing Grace,” a hymn composed by a slavery abolitionist. Some people kneeled as a street preacher fell to his knees and proclaimed, “This is an attack on the body of Christ!”
The community’s response could be seen in a thousand different meetings and comings-together around Charleston and the surrounding cities. Vigils were held in churches and in the TD Arena, restaurateurs and musicians held fundraising events for the grieving families, and donations began to pour into the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund.
Emanuel AME re-opened its doors for worship Sunday, and the crowd in attendance spilled onto the street. Other area churches held a joint service in Marion Square. Sunday night, a crowd of thousands streamed onto the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge to join hands in a show of solidarity and unity.
Whether the Rev. Pinckney’s prayer proves to be effectual or not, the families of the victims lived out his words in Roof’s bond hearing Friday when Chief Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr. gave them a chance to speak.
“I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, the daughter of Ethel Lance, 70. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
“For me, I’m a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I am very angry,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49. “But one thing DePayne has always joined in our family with is that she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul, and I also thank God that I won’t be around when your judgment day comes with Him. May God bless you.”
“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof,” said Alana Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons Sr., 74. “Everyone’s plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win.”