Religious and civil rights leaders in York County expressed anger and despair over the Wednesday night shooting deaths of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston.
The “despicable and awful” shooting must be a “wake-up call” for South Carolina to start dealing with its obvious race problems, said state Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, the only black member of the York County legislative delegation. One of the Charleston victims was state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, pastor at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of the shootings.
“The members of the Legislature, not just the Black caucus, but all of us, are in mourning for Sen. Pinckney and all these victims of this crime,” King said. “Sen. Pinckney was a great man. Great. My heart is broken for all these families.”
Yet King said the killings, which federal and state police call a hate crime, must motivate South Carolina to stop “sugarcoating” its problems between blacks and whites.
“It is obvious that we in South Carolina have a race issue, and that issue is right in front of our faces,” King said. “We must address our problems of race in South Carolina. We can finally be leaders in this state, and in this country, if we try and make this state and country better when it comes to racial issues.”
The Rev. Jacques Days, pastor of Rock Hill’s Adam’s Chapel AME Church, was a longtime friend and pastoral peer of Pinckney’s.
“Rev. Pinckney spent his life in service to God and to the people of this state,” Days said. “We stand together as AME church members, but more, as people of God, appalled by this regrettable act of violence, and hate, against Rev. Pinckney and all those people who perished.”
Days said several in his congregation have taken the news hard. They were concerned about safety after it became clear the shooter had spent an hour in Bible study at the Charleston church before he started shooting. But Days and others have counseled AME parishioners that the shooting cannot stop people from both living their lives and serving God, and that churches must be open to all people.
“The membership understands, and we are telling them and praying with them, that evil exists in this world,” Days said. “And that there are some amongst us who are motivated by hate. But we cannot be deterred by this act, we will not stop our service to God, or our commitment to our communities.”
South Pointe High School principal Al Leonard said he and Pinckney are related – their fathers were cousins and his father was once a presiding elder over Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Growing up, Leonard frequently worshiped there. When he saw pictures of the church, “it was like I was there yesterday.” The idea of bullets in that church, he said, stung him personally.
Leonard said he first heard about the shooting about 9:15 p.m. Wednesday and reacted with “shock, sorrow and anger.” He didn’t go to sleep until 2 in the morning, listening to the reports from Charleston.
Leonard first met Pinckney at a family reunion several years ago and later heard him preach. At family reunions, he was the person people gravitated to. “He commanded attention and respect. He was not a loud, in-your-face person,” Leonard said.
In the pulpit, “he was powerful in his message and could break things down clearly,” Leonard said.
At a Rock Hill vigil Thursday, the Rev. Jonathan Pannell of Emmanuel Church of the Nazarene said, “We came together as brothers in Christ to be able to create a network across the state, looking past denominations and everything else.
“It’s saddening to know our society and culture has come this way. God’s word tells us everything is going to get worse in the days to come, but we know we have Jesus to go to. If we know him as our personal savior, we know this is only the beginning.”
Wade Hawkins, a member of the Nazarene church, went with his friend Steve Rowe to pick up two pallets of donated fans for the ministry Thursday morning when they heard about the shooting.
“It saddened my heart,” Rowe said. “What in the life of this young man did he feel was so bad that he felt like this was his only recourse?”
Steve Love of York, a state officer with the South Carolina NAACP, called the shootings “a terrible crime against humanity.”
Love and others with the civil rights organization are discussing how best to respond, either with local events or by sending people to Charleston, or both.
Brother David Boone of the Rock Hill Oratory, treasurer of the Rock Hill NAACP and a civil rights activist for more than 60 years, said the news of the killings stunned even him.
“I could not comprehend how someone could sit in a church – a church, where people gather to pray and share the love of the Lord,” Boone said. “I wish it was not true. But it is.”
“We are all, as human beings, stunned,” said the Rev. Maurice Harden, pastor of Rock Hill’s New Mount Olivet AME Zion Church. “There are no words yet to describe this mass shooting. It is truly horrible. This has shaken us all.”
Harden and others affiliated with AME Zion churches held a prayer vigil Thursday evening in Rock Hill.
“We all must stand together as people on this day and show love will prevail,” Harden said.
Jasiri Makadara, of Rock Hill’s mosque, said the killings are “truly appalling and despicable criminal acts.”
The mosque will hold a special service Friday at its afternoon prayers to offer support for the AME church, family members of the victims, and humanity after a crime that Makadara said shows “the paradigm of hate” that has engulfed so many.
Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood said the shooting of people in a church is a crime that “should make people upset.”
Underwood, who has been the victim of race crimes and racial threats as a police officer and elected sheriff, vowed to help people deal with handling the crimes and the aftermath so the problem of racial hatred does not get any worse.
“Shooting people in a church is never acceptable, never right,” Underwood said.
The Herald’s Don Worthington contributed.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065