Last night, friends and families gathered at a historically black church in Providence to honor the nine people who were murdered at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. This interfaith service was both a memorial and a call for social justice.
Eight clergy members from different churches walked down the aisle together at Olney Street Baptist Church before a racially mixed group of about 100 people.
Nine candles stood at an altar to honor the nine people killed in the Charleston church shooting.
The tragedy hit close to home for Kimberly Allmond, who is a Sunday school teacher at Olney Street Baptist. Allmond told church goers that she knew one of the victims.
“No one ever plans on hearing that someone you know was murdered,” said Allmond. “And then to find out that they were gunned down inside a church while sitting and praying with their killer.”
Allmond was related by marriage to Sharonda Coleman Singleton, who died last week at the age of 45. Singleton was her Sunday school teacher many years ago. Allmond said, “hate ended her life, but love will be her legacy.”
Church goers closed their eyes and bowed their heads as leaders from several churches took turns reading scriptures and delivering prayers. Their words focused on peace and forgiveness. Many also called for an end to racial inequality. Pastor Linda Watkins joined the service from First Baptist Church in Pawtucket.
“So lord as we gather our hearts together today, we cry out to you with a collective unified voice, praying for our unity in our outrage in what has happened in Charleston, South Carolina,” she said.
Watkins went on to list moments in history and even today that stir outrage, such as slavery and racial profiling.
“Help us, Lord, to look at ways that we can work together to fight racial injustice Lord rather than pointing the figure at one another,” said Watkins. “Lord, unify us also in our desire to do something. Many are expressing it already by being here tonight, Lord.”
Memorial services like this one give people a chance to grieve and to express their anger and confusion, said Rev. Johnny Wilson Jr. the pastor at Olney Street Baptist Church. But he adds that faith leaders should not wait for another tragedy to happen.
“We cannot continue to allow these horrific things to happen and there’s no response,” said Wilson. “And the church is a place where all churches should be responding in some kind of way.”
Another pastor at this church has some ideas about where to start. Rev. Doris Hooks said gun control has been passed over for too long.
“You can go and apply for a job in a daycare and you will have background checks, but you can go and buy a gun at Walmart,” said Hooks. “These are things that we as a society, if it does not shape up, it will get worse.”
Hooks said the Charleston shooting is not the first time people have been murdered at a church.
“We forget sometimes about the little girls in Birmingham,” she said.
In 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls and injuring many others.
“So we would like to think that this will not happen to us, but no one is safe,” said Hooks.
No one is safe. That uneasy thought hangs in the air in Providence almost 1,000 miles from Charleston. But some people at the church find reason to hope.
After the service, resident Marsha Brown sips a cup of coffee and said change is possible. She points to growing calls to remove the confederate flag from the statehouses in South Carolina and Alabama.
“The impact that has ensued… because of that rebel flag that is such a spark of hatred is being removed from many, many things. So that’s a breakthrough I think.”
Faith leaders are calling on church goers to move forward in a thoughtful and peaceful way after the violence in Charleston. They've scheduled more services in Rhode Island this evening and over the weekend.
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