They were people of different races and religions, young and not so young. On Friday they filed into the pews of one of the District’s oldest African American churches, newly formed family grieving the loss of nine people who had also sought refuge in a place of worship.
Hundreds came to Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church to honor the victims of Wednesday’s mass shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C. And like so many in the nation, they came seeking answers as to why a young man walked into Emanuel AME Church and opened fire on a group of people with whom he had spent nearly an hour during a Bible study in the basement of the historic church.
Dylann Roof, who authorities say confessed to the killings, was charged Friday with nine counts of murder.
“Oh, Father, we can’t begin to fathom the hurt and pain of those in South Carolina. . . . Now, Lord, our hearts are hurting. Only you can lift our pain,” said the Rev. Michael O. Thomas, pastor of the Ward Memorial AME Church in Northeast Washington.
Thomas was among more than a dozen speakers who shifted from offering prayers and recitations of the Scriptures to singing songs of hope.
Rabbi Scott Perlo, of the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in the District, told the gathering: “We are cousins in the genealogy of suffering.” He then went on to quote Jeremiah 8:22 from the Old Testament, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” He answered that there is a balm.
During the midday gathering, nine poster-size images of the victims were carried through the sanctuary. Ernest Green, one of the “Little Rock Nine,” who integrated Central High School in Arkansas in the 1960s, carried a photo.
“To evoke Rhodesia and South Africa, this was not a casual discovery by this guy,” Green said, referring to flags of those countries seen on Roof’s jacket in photographs. “Somebody has been working with him. To allow this to go on is just a tragedy. It is a tragedy for the country.”
For some in attendance, the slayings were intensely personal. The Rev. Anita J. Gould, associate pastor of Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale, Md., attended Wesley Theological Seminary with the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was killed in the shooting. Gould described Pinckney as a humble man.
“He walked like a solider in the army of the Lord,” Gould said.
Mignon L. Clyburn, a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission, knew Cynthia Hurd, another victim. Clyburn, a South Carolina native, said Hurd questioned her about why she so often visited the library where Hurd worked. She said it was because she “liked Cynthia’s company.”
“She was wonderful, she was dedicated, she was committed to her church and church community,” Clyburn said. “Whatever she did, she did it quietly, but she did it well.”
But it didn’t matter to the people assembled whether they had met those who were slain. Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that “it shakes you to the core” when religious institutions become “a place of violence.”
“It hits home for us as Americans,” he said. “And it hits home for us as people of faith.”