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Vigil, service at Bethel AME focus on love, forgiveness after S.C. shooting

SEAN PHILIP COTTER
YorkDispatch

The three-dozen-or-so people at Bethel AME Church in York City on Saturday night linked hands and sang what the Rev. Katherine Rose, the pastor, called one of the church's "theme songs": "We Shall Overcome."

It fit the occasion well; the group had coalesced to hold a vigil for the mass shooting Wednesday night in their "sister church" — the historically black Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The vigil had no room for hatred and little for anger; instead, Rose and the attendees focused on forgiveness and conciliation.

Police have charged Dylann Roof, a white 21-year-old, with murdering nine people in what authorities have called a hate crime. An apparent white supremacist, Roof appears to have posed for many photos with the Confederate flag and written a 2,500-word manifesto belittling black people and outlining a plan to attack them, according to a website registered in his name.

Clarence Allen, one of the attendees Saturday evening at Bethel, shared his thoughts with those assembled.

"Hatred has no part in our society," he said. "Racism has no part in our society."

He spoke to the controversy revolving around the fact that South Carolina flies the Confederate flag at the state's capital. He said too many politicians are shying away from making a bold statement about getting rid of the flag, which many see as a symbol of racism.

"Someone needs to step up and do the right thing," he said.

Prayer: But only the first short while of the vigil involved talking directly about the shootings.

"Words are inadequate for how we feel," Rose said.

But they tried their best through prayer, which took up most of the hour-and-a-half-long vigil. The pastor and the attendees prayed and prayed, and they then prayed some more. Rose kept asking people to come up and pray for different things, and her calls never fell unanswered.

They prayed for peace, for unity and for the church; they prayed for those killed and their families, and that everyone come closer together. They even prayed for the man police say was the shooter.

Rose said it's important for people to teach kids from a young age to have love, rather than hate, and to be accepting and understanding of all kinds of people.

"I feel sorry for (people such hatred)," she said. "It is like a cancer that eats you up inside."

The reverend knew one of the shooting victims — Daniel Simmons, a retired pastor at the church where the shooting occurred. She said she'd met him several times at AME gatherings.

"I'm certainly going to miss his face," Rose said after the vigil ended. "He was a nice Christian gentleman."

The vigil attendees said the massacre wouldn't put a damper on their Bible study groups or worship services.

"We will still come together," said Carlotta Barnes, who attended the vigil. "We still come to church and Bible study. We have to depend on church."

Rose agreed, adding that they would, as always, keep up the sadly necessary vigilance.

"We'll certainly follow what scripture says: watch and pray," she said.

Sunday: The next morning, about 600 miles south, Emanuel AME Church, the denomination's "mother church" in the south, held its first worship service since the massacre. The full church started its mass with song.

Here in York City, at just about the same time, Bethel AME held its Sunday service, its close to 100 people gathering in the high-ceilinged church, making quite a joyful noise.

The service didn't focus on the tragedy in South Carolina, but Rose did mention it, reaffirming her and the church's commitment not to let this incident cow them or bring them to turn away people who want to join them.

"In spite of tragedy, the doors of this church are still open," Rose said. "The doors of the church are still open," she repeated to a chorus of "hallelujahs."

— Reach Sean Cotter at scotter@yorkdispatch.com and Brianna Shea at bshea@yorkdispatch.com.