Approximately 150 people from churches around Newton County came together Wednesday night at St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Covington to hold vigil for the nine people slain while at prayer services in Charleston last week.
“We come together to let the world know that here in Newton County, we are one people,” said the Rev. Thomas R. Stengall, pastor of St. Paul’s AME, opening the vigil. “When churches are under attack, we come together as God’s children. We stand in unity to pray for those who have fallen doing what God called them to do.”
Those gathered offered prayers, not only for the nine killed, but for the family of the alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, and Roof himself. Roof has been charged with the murders.
The shooting of nine people, including three ministers, meeting for a Bible study last Wednesday night is considered a hate crime, and serves as a painful reminder to many of a long history steeped in racism and the struggle for civil rights.
It has also brought to the forefront arguments over the displaying of the Confederate battle flag outside government buildings, seen by some as an expression of heritage, by others as an expression of hate.
The vigil at St. Paul’s AME was an invitation to the community, regardless of race or ethnicity, to be in prayer together and to honor the nine slain members.
Paster J. W. Smith of the Newton County Minister’s Union offered prayers that “we might come closer together” out of the tragedy. “Let them not die in vain.”
Smith said, later, that he had been thinking of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s statement that the death of the four young girls, killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham had been bombed in 1963, that their death was a down payment on freedom. “This,” he said, “is a second down payment.”
Among the ministers who spoke to the gathering was Pastor Noah Nyamarop from Mt. Zion AME in Mansfield. The Zimbabwe native shared stories of having worked with Pastor Clementa Pickney, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Tywanza Sanders, three of the victims of the Charleston shooting. He worked closest, he said, with Pastor Pickney, who was “a very smart young man. ... His life was cut short and he could not realize his dreams.”
Citing recent steps taken by Amazon, EBay and Wal-Mart to cease carrying the Confederate battle flag, he said, “God has brought us to look at flags which are being flown over our government buildings.” Those flag, he said, remind people of the Civil War, of Union and Confederate armies, but those gathered in vigil were brought together, “black and white, to remember we are one people under God. When God sees us, he doesn’t see black, he doesn’t see white. We are all the children of God.”
Dr. Gwen Cattledge, president of the Newton County NAACP, also had personal experiences with the historic Charleston church. “It could have been me [at the church], it could have been you,” she said. “Though it seems we’ve turned back the pages of time to the 1950s and 1960s, we have to “remember, the same God is with us now. God pulls us together. God pulls all of us.
“Keep your eye on the prize,” she said, “and the prize is Jesus. Our weapon is love and we have to love everybody because love will conquer all.”
During the vigil, nine candles were lit and a bell rung as each of the nine people killed last week were named.
The Rev. Ronny Brennan, pastor of Prospect United Methodist Church in Covington, before offering a prayer for community, said, “We are the church and this is what we do. If we are the community of God, we must lift up that young man [who was charged with the murders] and his family—imagine the horrors they are feeling. We must pray for them all.”
Other ministers from around Newton County taking part in the vigil included the Rev. Darlene Smith of St. Paul’s AME, Covington; Pastor Justin Adams of New Life Praise Center, Mansfield; the Rev. Dr. Billy Wade, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Covington; Rev. Sheila Byrd, Poplar Hill AME in Mansfield; and Asst. Pastor Jack Lindsey, Mt. Zion AME.
Earlier in the week, another vigil was held at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Covington.