Local church leaders react to Charleston shooting

(Photo by Stephen Melkisethian/flickr)
All the across the country, people are mourning and holding vigils like this one in Washington, D.C. A local vigil is planned for Monday in Greenport. (Photo by Stephen Melkisethian/flickr)

Lela Heyward received a phone call at midnight last Wednesday from her hometown of Charleston, S.C. She couldn’t believe the news.

Although her nephew didn’t belong to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, he knew many people there and had just paid a visit the week before.

He called to say there had been a mass shooting at the historic black church and that he was devastated. The church’s pastor was among the dead.

Ms. Heyward, whose husband, the Rev. Nathaniel Heyward, is pastor at Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church in Greenport, said that although she grew up with segregation and left Charleston after high school in 1961, her hometown and its Baptist church have never left her heart.

“I went through the struggles — I had to go out the back door, drink from a separate water fountain and sit at the back of the bus,” she said Monday. “I never felt threatened in church. I always thought of it as a safe place. I’m really hurt and can’t believe it.”

A 21-year-old white man has been charged with murder in the deaths of six black women and three black men, who were at a Bible study session inside the church. They ranged in age from 26 to 87.

The Rev. Heyward, who grew up 60 miles south of Charleston in Burton, S.C., described last week’s killings as “evil at its core.”

“People are afraid of losing their place of dominance and feel as though others are taking over and so they retaliate,” he said. “When we’re confronted with this evil, the only remedy for evil is love. Love is the motive, the engine that drives good.”

Community members have asked if his Greenport church needed anything in the aftermath of the Charleston shootings and the Rev. Heyward has called such kindness a blessing.

“I would only ask that we all pray collectively that the hearts of all people be transformed so that they might become creatures of love,” he said. “I know people want to do something physical, but the AME is spiritual. It has to emanate from the hearts of individuals. This is done, then we’ll have a better world. People will forget about color, tradition and will become agents of faith.”

 VIGIL: Southold Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force will hold a vigil to express solidarity with the victims at 7 p.m. Monday, June 29, at Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church, 614 Third St., Greenport.

The Rev. Andrew Teagle of St. Paul’s AME Zion Church in Quogue, who collaborates on community projects with local church leaders, attended an annual conference in Tarrytown for AME churches this past week and described the shooting as a “relapse of pain and a wound that all African descendants feel.

“We were mourning — it was hard to speak to each other about what just happened,” he said about the mood at this year’s conference. “We hope we can use this moment to promote a counterculture against racism, hate and terror.”

Some local church leaders say they believe communities need to provide more opportunities for different cultures to get to know one another to help prevent violent acts.

The Rev. Charles Coverdale, who has been with First Baptist Church of Riverhead for more than 30 years, said he was devastated when he learned about the mass killings.

“I look at it as it might be based in race, but terror acts are usually in response to when people feel they’ve been cheated or neglected,” he said. “That’s what was behind the motivation — he wanted to strike out against society in a town where he lived in and, in fact, at a church they said brought nothing but joy, love and service for the entire community.”

Lillian Pennon, and her husband, Pastor Roy L. Pennon, have served Galilee Church of God in Christ in Flanders for nearly four decades. During that time, Ms. Pennon said, there hasn’t been any violence at the church. She recalls experiencing only one tense moment, about 15 years ago during the funeral of gang member.

Ms. Pennon described last week’s shooting as a shock and said she doesn’t view the incident as purely a racial issue.

“People these days don’t seem to respect themselves anymore — if you don’t respect yourself, you’re not going to respect too many other things, if any,” she said. “I hate to use the word ‘pray,’ but I think we all need to rely more on a higher source than ourselves.”

The Rev. Coverdale said he believes more needs to be done to keep guns away from people with mental health problems. Following last week’s shooting, he said he’s been asked if he believes ministers should carry guns during services to protect church members.

“I could not operate in that kind of fear,” he said. “I can’t live my life knowing I let somebody have me live in that kind of fear, even though I’m aware our jobs have become more dangerous.”

Last Thursday morning, the Suffolk County Police Department emailed local church leaders to say it would be taking precautionary measures since “high-profile events of this nature can spur copycat attacks and motivate those predisposed to violence.”

“While there is no indication that an attack of this nature is planned in Suffolk County, patrol checks at religious institutions have been increased,” the message stated. “Members of the department have reached out to clergy leaders through various methods, including through the Suffolk County Police Clergy Council. The department will continue to monitor these unfolding events and will respond accordingly to ensure the safety of all citizens in Suffolk County.”

The Rev. Coverdale also serves on the Sheriff’s Office Citizens Advisory Board, which designs programs to resolve conflicts between law enforcement and the community, and was pleased to hear that local law enforcement officials were taking proactive measures.

Both he and Ms. Pennon agreed that communities can do more to help people from different age groups and cultures get to know one another. Their churches are also focused on continuing to develop such opportunities.

The Rev. Coverdale added that the challenge is to provide people with “a sense of hope and a need to live their lives more fully.”

“It’s our job to get kids ready for diversity, which is what they’ll meet wherever they go,” he said. “When you’re separated from everybody, everybody becomes a target because they have no names, no real faces.”

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