Close-Knit Community Offers Prayerful Response to Charleston Tragedy

Police are calling the mass murder of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Wednesday night a ‘hate crime.’

Mourners gather June 18 for a community prayer service for the nine victims of the June 17 shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church at Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston, S.C.
Mourners gather June 18 for a community prayer service for the nine victims of the June 17 shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church at Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston, S.C. (photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The mass shooting death of nine individuals during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston on Wednesday evoked prayers for both the victims and the alleged assailant from the heavily Christian community.

Nine people were shot and killed during the spree, which Charleston Chief of Police Gregory Mullen called “a hate crime.” Eight victims died at the scene, and another died later in the hospital. Three others who were wounded survived.

Among the dead was Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, Emanuel’s pastor, who was also a state senator. According to CNN, Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten identified the other shooting victims as: Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59.

The alleged shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, was apprehended and arrested less than 24 hours later, in North Carolina.

According to news reports, Roof had sat in on the Bible study for about an hour before he allegedly began his rampage.

Emanuel Church is the oldest AME church in the South and is home to one of the largest black congregations south of Baltimore.

Lovingly referred to as “Mother Emanuel,” the historic church was established in 1816 and named “Emanuel” in 1865.


U.S. Bishops React

The Catholic response to the deadly shootings came soon after the catastrophic event. Charleston Bishop Robert Guglielmone was out of town but issued a statement Thursday morning.

“I am deeply saddened by the mass murder that occurred at Emanuel AME Church,” Bishop Guglielmone said. “The inside of any church is a sanctuary. When a person enters, he or she has the right to worship, pray and learn in a safe and secure environment.”

“For anyone to murder nine individuals is upsetting,” he added, “but to kill them inside of a church during a Bible study class is devastating to any faith community.”

“On behalf of the Catholic faithful in South Carolina, I offer my deepest sympathies to the families of the victims and to the members of Emanuel AME Church,” he concluded. “I pray that everyone affected by this horror will feel the comforting presence of Our Lord surrounding them during this difficult time.”

Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Ala., knows Charleston well because he preceded Bishop Guglielmone as head of the diocese for eight years. However, he personally did not know Rev. Pinckney, who did not become pastor of Emanuel AME until three years after Bishop Baker left the diocese.

“It’s regrettable,” Bishop Baker said with sadness. “When I was there, I knew it to be a very civilized city.”

“There is a strong tradition in Charleston of amicable relations between the Caucasian and black communities,” Bishop Baker added. “I do know Charleston had a leadership who worked for racial harmony.”

A deeply saddened Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia offered the deepest sympathies of the Catholic faithful in his archdiocese to the victims’ families and the members of Emanuel Church. In a statement, he said, “All life matters, and when life is taken in such a violent way, all people of good will are devastated. ... May love be our mission and give us the strength to drive out hate, today and always.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan also released a statement, assuring “our suffering brothers and sisters” at Emanuel AME Church “that they have the love, prayerful solidarity and condolences” of the archdiocese’s people, priests, deacons and religious.

“God teaches that every human life is sacred; God’s house should always be a place of safety and peace,” he said. “I ask that intercession for the wounded Christian community be part of our Sunday Masses this weekend.”


Reaction of the Sisters

Bishop Baker noted the strong outreach the Catholic Church has in Charleston in the black community, such as the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy. Founded in Charleston in 1829, not long after Emanuel AME Church was established in the city, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy have been serving the poor in a variety of ways, such as today’s Neighborhood House at Our Lady of Mercy Church. Because of their close affiliation with the city, they were shocked by the senseless killings.

“It is a tragedy, especially for all the families that lost someone,” said Sister Mary Joseph Ritter, the general superior of the congregation.

She also called it a tragedy for the young man “for whatever reason for the irrational act” and hopes “he gets some help.”

“I would think our response is a human response,” she added. In this “terrible, tragic loss” due to violence, the sisters will “offer our Masses and prayers for all the people who were lost and their families, and for that whole congregation, [for whom] it must be a terrible trauma.”


African-American Catholics

St. Patrick Catholic Church is in the same neighborhood as Emanuel AME Church. St. Patrick’s dates to the early 19th century, also as a primarily black congregation.

Father Henry Kulah, the pastor of St. Patrick’s and Our Lady of Mercy, heard the news early Thursday morning.

“When I came to Mass, we were praying for the victims, the families, the church community and also the conversion of whoever perpetrated this heinous crime,” he said.

Father Kulah, who came to the United States several years ago from Ghana, explained why the tragedy affected his congregation especially hard, as many in his congregation are converts from AME.

He said his secretary was devastated because her mother lost two very good friends.

“Last Sunday in my homily, I said we walk by faith and not by sight. People called me [after this tragedy] to ask, ‘What do we do in this?’”

He explained, even in this tragedy, “We know that God is with us, and Christ said pray for your enemies and pray for those who curse you. That is what we have to do.”

“We encourage one another that we should keep praying for the families and for that church,” Father Kulah said.

Members of St. Patrick’s have pledged to support the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund, announced by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and set up to help pay for funerals and to further support the affected families and the Emanuel church community.


Neighborhood Priest

Father Jeffrey Kirby, vicar of vocations for the Diocese of Charleston, lives three blocks from Emanuel AME Church and passes it many times during his exercise walks around the city because the church is situated near Marion Square, a large public park in the heart of Charleston.

“This is my neighborhood, and I was just shocked at what has happened,” he said.

Because the College of Charleston is also by the square, he speculated that people might have thought the shooter was just another college student curious to walk into a Bible study.

This crime was shocking to Father Kirby on many levels. He said Charleston is a welcoming city for anyone. People come from all over because it’s a top tourist destination in the United States. The oldest city in the state and known for its Civil War-era architecture, it also has the reputation of being one of the friendliest cities anywhere.

“The mayor said last night that Charleston places its arms around this church — that’s Charleston. That shooting is not Charleston.”

Living in Charleston, he said, “I grieve for the families of the victims and grieve for the offences against the church as a faith place and for the assault on civic fraternity.”

Father Kirby considered further responses to this horrible tragedy.

“The people of Mother Emanuel were in Bible study and prayer, and we need to pick up the mantle and continue the prayer,” he said of the best response. “That’s the big part: prayer. Pray, and be good neighbors to one another.”

The measured responses on Thursday, with people turning to prayer, seem to have root in the character of Charleston.

Father Kirby explained that Charleston is popularly known as “The Holy City,” a name acquired decades ago because it has so many churches of various denominations. Almost every third block has a church.

“The city has always cherished its churches,” Father Kirby said. “The church is always seen as a sacred and safe place and stands for something that has united us and [has been seen] as a source of unity and a help to us to be good neighbors to one another.”

“So there were three things that were offended,” he explained. “You can see why this assault in a church is so shocking.”


Neighborhood Nuns

The Daughters of St. Paul’s bookstore and convent is a few minutes from Emanuel AME Church. Sister Margaret Kerry put a sign in the window reading, “We Are Praying With the Emanuel AME Church Family,” and people were coming into the store all day on Thursday.

“We’re also going to be putting a sign by the church that we are praying for them,” she said, sharing observations and thoughts from that somber day.

There was a whole different atmosphere she observed, as opposed to other places that have recently experienced violence. “I overheard phone conversations of people who knew those who died, or relatives, and I was amazed by the amount of faith they had,” she said.

Sister Margaret continued, “The way the community has come together has amazed me. People have come into the book center without being angry. They are looking at Pope Francis — a big cutout we have of him in back of the store — and want to take a picture with him. They are going to the prayer services [around the city] and pray God blesses us and keeps us together.”

The tragedy hitting so close to home has made her personally even more determined to pray for so many others.

“I’m not just going to pass by any church now,” Sister Margaret said. “Now, I want to say a prayer for the people in that church and be aware they are more than welcome in our Pauline Center, so that we can share this beautiful faith we have. And hopefully we don’t have to wait for these few [tragic] times to come together.”

Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.