By DANIEL O'SHEA, Catholic News Service | Published June 25, 2015
WASHINGTON (CNS)—The tragic taking of nine lives at a historically black church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, brought an outpouring of solidarity, compassion and sorrow from around the country.
After an all-night search, police June 18 found the white man suspected of fatally shooting nine people, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and the senior pastor. They arrested 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof in North Carolina. He has been charged with nine counts of murder.
Witnesses said Roof had joined a prayer meeting the evening of June 17 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. They said he sat with church members for about an hour then stood up, yelling racist remarks, and opened fire.
Religious leaders as well as government leaders issued their condolences and condemned the shooting, which is being investigated as a hate crime.
Catholic Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone of Charleston expressed a deep sadness over the tragedy.
“The inside of any church is a sanctuary,” he said in a statement. “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, but to kill them inside of a church during a Bible study class is devastating to any faith community.”
Bishop Guglielmone also shared his sympathies with those who lost loved ones in the shooting and prayed they will “feel the comforting presence of our Lord surrounding them during this difficult time.”
Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Raleigh in the neighboring state of North Carolina, said: “In solidarity with my brother bishop … I ask all the Catholic faithful and people of goodwill in the Diocese of Raleigh to stop at some point today, and offer sincere and thoughtful prayer for the nine victims of this horrific crime and for their families.”
Hands are joined across Charleston city bridge
The residents of Charleston demonstrated their response as people without regard to race left messages and bundles of flowers at the church and prayed and grieved as they stood beside the yellow police crime tape.
On Sunday, June 21, Emanuel A.M.E. Church reopened for its regular Sunday service, with its pews filled both with congregants and civic and religious leaders as all the Charleston churches tolled their bells. Also that day a public demonstration of unity took place in Charleston as people joined hands across the city’s main bridge.
A number of Jewish groups issued strong statements on the crime that took place in Charleston.
“Hate crimes attack both individual victims and entire communities,” said the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “They are meant to isolate and terrorize. We stand in direct contrast: for an inclusive and pluralistic community, one that cherishes life and recognizes that every person is created in the divine image.”
The statement went on to point out that tragic act “highlights that there is still racism in our society and that there is urgent need to address the issue directly. We must clearly and unequivocally demonstrate that hate violence has no place in our society.”
Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations at AJC Global Jewish Advocacy, said that “this horrific massacre of innocents at prayer is extreme depravity. We are shocked beyond words that someone could enter a house of worship in our country and commit such a horrific crime, all the more so if it was racially motivated.”
Mayor Riley: ‘We are going to put our arms around that church’
Numerous government officials weighed in on the shooting, with some citing an attachment to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Closely impacted by the tragedy was Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley.
According to AP coverage of a news conference, Riley, who is Catholic, said that for someone to go into a church and kill people who had gathered to pray and worship “is beyond any comprehension. We are going to put our arms around that church and that church family.”
A number of Catholic bishops across the country issued statements, including Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He expressed “grief and deep sadness” over the murders June 19, saying, “There have been far too many heartbreaking losses in the African-American community this year alone. Our prayers are with all those suffering from this heinous crime. We join our voices with civic and religious leaders in pledging to work for healing and reconciliation.”
Archbishop Kurtz added, “We must continue to build bridges and we must confront racism and violence with a commitment to life, a vision of hope, and a call to action.”
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Martin D. Holley in a statement as the national chaplain of the Knights of Peter Claver said: “We stand in solidarity with all the people of South Carolina offering our sympathy, condolences, love and prayers for the survivors and all the family members of the victims begging God to grant us peace and security and respect for the dignity of every human person.”
The American Jewish Congress called it “a hateful act of terror. … Nobody should be unsafe in a house of worship, no matter the color of their skin or the religion they practice.”
Church’s history linked to struggle against slavery, for civil rights
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, in a joint statement recalled meeting Rev. Pinckney, who also was a state senator.
“He was a good man, a man of faith, a man of service who carried forward Mother Emanuel’s legacy as a sacred place promoting freedom, equality, and justice for all,” the statement said, using a popular name for the church. “We pray for him and his sister as we do for the seven other innocent souls who entered that storied church for their weekly Bible study seeking nothing more than humble guidance for the full lives ahead of them.”
President Barack Obama in a separate statement said that he and first lady Michelle Obama know several members from Mother Emanuel church, including the pastor.
“There is something particularly heartbreaking about the death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship,” he said.
“Mother Emanuel is, in fact, more than a church,” Obama continued, noting the church’s long and proud history. “This is a place of worship that was founded by African-Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshippers worked to end slavery.”
“When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, they conducted services in secret,” he said. “When there was a nonviolent movement to bring our country closer in line with our highest ideals, some of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this church’s steps.”