Americas

Charleston Church Attack the Deadliest in Decades

(UPDATED) President Obama sings 'Amazing Grace' at Clementa Pinckney funeral.
Charleston Church Attack the Deadliest in Decades
Image: Spencer Means / Flickr and Facebook
Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and its pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney

Update (June 26): In a eulogy dedicated to his late friend Clementa Pinckney on Friday, President Obama referenced grace 35 times before breaking into an acapella performance of John Newton’s famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

“According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve,” Obama told the audience of 5,000 gathered at the College of Charleston arena for the funeral of the former pastor and state senator. “Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” [Full speech]

In light of the Charleston shooting, God has granted grace on Americans by allowing them to see where they had been “blind,” said Obama, alluding to the recent call by many of South Carolina’s politicians to take down the Confederate flag.

“Removing the flag from this state’s capitol…would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds,” he said. “It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.”

CT reported earlier this week from Emmanuel AME on its first Sunday service following the Bible study massacre. Former Obama administration member Michael Wear also argued that the Charleston families did not forgive Dylan Roof to express the values of their race, but to be faithful to their God.

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In an attack reminiscent of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, a lone gunman killed nine people Wednesday night at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, a historic congregation in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

The suspect in the shooting, identified as 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, reportedly attended the evening Bible study for an hour before opening fire, according to CNN.

Among those killed was Clementa C. Pinckney, the pastor of "Mother Emanuel" and a South Carolina state legislator, as well as Cynthia Hurd, a well-loved local librarian.

The attack follows a long history of violence against African American churches, said Valerie Cooper, associate professor of black church studies at Duke University.

“Particularly during the 20th century, burning black churches was a way to try to intimidate blacks seeking increased political or economic power since the churches so often functioned as the hub of civil rights organizing,” said Cooper. “The bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, and the subsequent death of four little girls who were there for Sunday school, shocked the nation with the violent lengths to which racists would go to disrupt and destroy black churches, and by extension, black communities.”

Cooper sends her students to visit African American churches on Wednesday nights, where they often find a warm welcome. Roof would have been greeted with open arms, said Cooper. His attack was a betrayal of the hospitality churches show to visitors.

Among his victims were members who were pillars of the congregation and longtime church staff. On Wednesday nights, many African American churches host Bible studies and choir rehearsal.

“That’s where you’ll find the most faithful members,” said Cooper. “Their deaths will strike at the hearts of the congregation.”

Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston held a noon prayer service for victims. Church leaders asked people to join in prayer in churches across the country and on Twitter, using the hashtag #AMEStrong.

“Prayer without ceasing today everyday! Pray at 12 Noon wherever you joining the AME family in South Carolina,” tweeted Vashti McKenzie, the AME's first female bishop. “In the midst of this heartbeat, we need to lift our prophetic voices to inform discussion and action.”

Among those at Wednesday’s prayer vigil was South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. She denounced the shooting and said that the people of her state stand for love, not hate.

“What happened in that church is not the people of South Carolina,” she said.

Other leaders told those gathered at the prayer gathering not to lose hope, despite the violence.

“This church, our church, was built on the rock and no act will ever destroy the foundation,” said state representative Jim Clyburn, according to The Post and Courier. “When you leave these hallowed walls, please break your silence. They must not win.”

Charleston mayor Joseph Riley has condemned the shooting as a hate crime. “People in prayer Wednesday evening, a ritual coming together, praying and worshiping God. To have an awful person come in and shoot them is inexplicable," he toldThe Washington Post. "Obviously the most intolerable and unbelievable act possible.”

Wednesday's attack was one of the deadliest attacks on a house of worship since a 1991 shooting that killed 9 people at the Wat Promkunaram temple outside of Phoenix, according to the Post.

In 2007, shootings at two Colorado megachurches left five people dead. In one of those attacks, a church member named Jeanne Assam shot gunman Matthew Murray, who arrived at New Life Church with “a rifle, two handguns, and 1,000 rounds of ammunition,” CT reported at the time.

"It was me, the gunman and God," Assam said at the time.

Seven people were later killed at a shooting at a Christian college in California in 2012.

CT previously examined the surge in church shootings. In 2013, the federal government issued a guide on how to deal with hostile gunman for churches and other houses of worship, in response to the Newtown school shooting.

“Beyond seeking shelter and waiting for police to arrive, as many Newtown victims did, the new rules also advise adults in congregations to fight back—as a last resort—in a bid to stop the shooter,” CT reported. “The new federal doctrine is ‘run, hide, or fight.’”

On Thursday, President Barack Obama lamented the “senseless murders” at Emanuel, where he and First Lady Michelle Obama had friends.

“We knew their pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who, along with eight others gathered in prayer and fellowship, was murdered last night,” he said. “And to say our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families and their community doesn't say enough to convey the heartache and the sadness and the anger that we feel.”

AME leaders expressed their remorse and grief for the shootings at Emanuel and offered prayers for the congregation there.

“We will cooperate with the authorities in their investigation and encourage anyone with information to do the same, and we are praying that peace and justice prevail,” said Julius H. McAllister, president of the AME Council of Bishops, and John R. Bryant, senior AME bishop, in a statement. “We extend our prayers, love and support to Bishop Richard F. Norris and the entire constituency of the Seventh Episcopal District at this time.”

According to church officials, “Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in 1816 when African American members of Charleston's Methodist Episcopal Church formed their own congregation after a dispute over burial grounds. Six years later, one of the church founders was implicated in a slave revolt plot. He wasn't convicted. During the case, the church was burned to the ground. It was rebuilt in 1834.”

Cecilia Williams, director of ministry initiatives of Love Mercy Do Justice for the Evangelical Covenant Church, called the attack “unfathomable.”

Williams had heard some reports describing the alleged shooter as “a lone gunman” and referring to the shooting as an “isolated incident.” For many African Americans, she said, the shooting brings up memories of other racial violence.

“This a tragic reminder of a historic legacy of violence,” she said. “It feels like there is no safe place for black people in America.”

Still, Williams said that she’s not without hope. This incident is a chance for Christians of all races to speak “into the fullness of human suffering,” she said. “This situation is not beyond God’s watchful eye or his ability to redeem and restore.”

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