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Charleston churches respond to shootings with grief, but also resolve

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Grace Beahm/Reuters

(Read caption) The Rev. Richard Harkness (l.) holds hands with the Rev. Jack Lewin as the church sings 'We Shall Overcome' at the close of a prayer vigil held at Morris Brown A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., Thursday. A white man suspected of killing nine people in a Bible-study group at a historic African-American church in Charleston was arrested on Thursday and US officials are investigating the attack as a hate crime.

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The day after a mass shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., a noon vigil spilled out of a church just blocks away, with hundreds of people sweating in near 100-degree heat, strangers hugging each other or just standing still and listening.

Almost a dozen churches and places of worship are within walking distance of Emanuel at the southern tip of the city, all covering a variety of faiths and denominations. And on Thursday, it was a faith community shaken by the senseless killing of nine people at a Bible study – apparently only because they were black.

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But it was also a faith community unified. The Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, pastor for the Circular Congregational Church a few blocks from Emanuel, flew back for the vigil. On Wednesday, he had been at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, as part of a interfaith trip visiting landmarks of the civil rights movement across the South.

What he found back home in Charleston Thursday was more than despair. Amid the grief, there was also a recurring question, he says.

“I can’t tell you how many people were saying, ‘Where do we go from here? What do we do?’ ”

Already, he says, things were happening in Charleston. Questions of race and justice brought to light with the police shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in North Charleston in April had begun to kindle a new activism.

“I think things were already catalyzing … and this is – I know lot of details we do not have yet – but I think if it’s possible to catalyze this community any more, this will do that,” he says.

He was struck by how many hundreds of people came to the church. People, he says, “just had to be there” – people coming out of offices on their lunch break.

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“People are talking openly about it,” he says. “ ‘What’s happening, what does this moment mean?’ I think the moment may be stretching back several months now, but there’s a lot that seems to be coming to the surface.”

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Four separate vigils were held across South Carolina around noon Thursday, including the vigil in Charleston. Matthew Brodie, director of communications for the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, attended a vigil at Bethel A.M.E Church in Columbia, the state capital.

He says that the bipartisan, cross-denominational vigils illustrated how the religious communities across South Carolina can help one another absorb and respond to the shooting.

"It was a true coming together of all these different voices and different personalities under God’s roof to be in worship and prayer about the tragedy that happened," says Mr. Brodie. "As we move forward into the future, this is the kind of instance that we can use to hopefully start conversations and be in ministry with each other and take the church into the community and really be a voice for the right kind of changes and the right kind of responses to a tragedy like this."

L. Jonathan Holston, resident bishop of the United Methodist Church of South Carolina, said in a statement that "no one is unaffected. We are all impacted by the horror that occurred in this place of worship."

In a press conference Thursday, civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton said his organization, the National Action Network, will be coordinating a national day of prayer and healing in response to the shooting.

"We must go forward in uniting the community against this kind of hatred," he added in the press conference. "It is clear this nation has to deal with hate and it has to deal with race, and to continue to castigate and demonize those that raise the issue is not going to solve the problem."

Mr. Sharpton discussed, in a separate statement released Thursday morning, how he worked with the Rev. Clementa Pinckney – the pastor of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church and a victim in the shooting – in the wake of the police shooting of Mr. Scott.

"It is chilling to me that just over two months ago while I was in North Charleston over the police shooting of Walter Scott, I’m reminded that Reverend Pinckney was among the clergy who stood with me at that occasion," Sharpton said. "Now he has fallen victim to senseless violence."

Rutledge echoed that deep sense of loss. “There’s a shock that it’s happened to someone that we know and a very prominent church that’s well-loved and respected,” he adds. “It feels like it happened to the whole community.”

Earlier this week, in an interview with the Monitor before Wednesday’s shootings on a different subject, Rutledge spoke about the long history of racial segregation in the city, going back to when it was a hub of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and, later, a city at the heart of the civil rights movement.

“One thing we have is a long history of activism," he said. "We also have a long history of segregation, de facto segregation, and resistance to different kinds of integration."

But the Scott shooting started a social ferment, he said.

"There’s bitterness, but there’s also a very strong spirit of working together and being part of a long movement for change," he adds. "There is something going on in Charleston."

Thursday, he says he saw signs of that.

"This is just a bad day, we’re really grieving," Rutledge says, before pausing for a moment. "But when the church overflowed – it’s very hot here, and hundreds of hundreds of people were out here just sweating through their clothes and not moving.... As far as initial responses go, to me that’s a very beautiful response. All those people out there just sweating, they didn’t want to go anywhere."