Less than 18 hours after nine people were gunned down at a Charleston church, hundreds of politicians, religious leaders and community members praised the lost lives and called for unity at a vigil.
The service at Morris Brown AME Church was seven blocks from Emanuel AME Church, where the shootings took place Wednesday night.
The Rev. Charles Watkins, pastor at Morris Brown AME Church, called the shootings an act of “domestic terrorism.”
“It has been a long and miserable night,” he told the standing-room-only crowd at the church.
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News of an arrest in the shooting brought one of many cheers from worshipers during the 90-minute service.
John Richard Bryant, a regional AME bishop, said the shooter’s attempt at terrorism failed.
“The young man picked the wrong place,” Bryant said, “and the wrong crowd.”
Unlike Jesus, Bryant said, Charleston did not wait three days for a resurrection from an evil act.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat whose district includes parts of Charleston, blamed the Internet for the killings, saying the shooter “allowed himself to get caught up in something that is anti-social.”
With his voice rising through the sanctuary, Clyburn demanded the shootings inspire people to act against evildoers. “If we stay out, they will win. We must not let them win.”
Gov. Nikki Haley spoke at the vigil, too, directing her comments to a country with its attention turned to Charleston.
“What happened in that church last night is not the people of South Carolina,” the Republican said, her voice cracking. “What’s happening in this church, and in all the churches across the state today — that, my friends, is the people of South Carolina.”
Haley admitted to being angry about the shooting, but she said the assailant will not succeed in dividing the community.
“This person who has so much hate, his day will come,” she said. “He was hoping to divide this state and this country. But what he doesn’t understand is what he did yesterday, all he’s going to do is bring us a whole lot closer together.”
Haley continued to preach her theme of togetherness, saying, “There is not one color. There is not one gender. There is not one political party. This is neighbors loving neighbors. People taking care of people. And all of us saying, ‘No more.’ ”
The speeches were devoid of politics with one exception. Bryant, the African Methodist Episcopal regional bishop, talked about what he called “the elephant in the room” — guns. Bryant of Chicago said he couldn’t believe some state legislatures were trying to loosen restrictions on gun ownership.
His remarks about gun control drew two loud standing ovations from the worshipers except for some Republican lawmakers — including Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson — who remained seated.
After the vigil, Scott said he attended to support his community. “I wasn’t there to make political points,” he said. “Staying seated was best thing to do.”
The vigil’s diversity was not just along political lines. White and black worshipers dotted the pews . A group from a Jewish day camp lined a row in the mezzanine.
The Rev. Joseph Darby, elder of the Beaufort district of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, called it a “colorful crowd.”
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a popular politician, told worshipers that Emanuel AME Church, already one of the oldest African-American churches in the nation, will become more sacred because of how the community will help the families of victims. A new fund has been started to help cover funeral costs.
“We will show through true love that we can rebuild lives,” Riley said.
The vigil ended with a round of applause for the nine shooting victims. Worshipers also held hands and swayed as they sang, “We Shall Overcome.”
But police hurried worshipers and clergy out of the church about 10 minutes after the vigil ended, when a bomb threat was reported.
Afterward, while standing on a streetcorner, pastors discussed with each other how it will take time to change the racial attitudes of some people.
The bomb threat turned out to be false.