Hundreds of men and women, black and white, young and old, dressed in their church best and traditional garb and sporting crosses and kippahs, packed into the sanctuary of Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Roxbury on Sunday evening for a prayer session in the wake of last week’s deadly attack on a Bible study session at a sister parish in South Carolina.
The commmunitywide, interfaith service capped a day on which churches across Boston area mourned, prayed, and tried to make sense of the attack by a white man who opened fire and killed nine black men and women at Emanuel AME in Charleston.
Music swelled through the sanctuary as the service began, and congregants packed into every corner of the 400-capacity church. Thunderous applause following the opening hymn. The service was attended by faith leaders including Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of the Boston Catholic archdiocese, Rabbi Jill Perlman from Temple Isaiah, and pastors from AME churches across the Commonwealth.
A hymn entitled “They Met to Read the Bible,” written Saturday night by a Presbyterian minister specifically for the service, followed the opening hymn. Voices and congregants rose, as song echoed in the hall: “We grieve a wounded culture where fear and terror thrive/ Where some hate others for their race and guns are glorified.”
The pastor of Charles Street AME, the Rev. Dr. Gregory G. Groover, welcomed those in attendance.
“We publicly and unapologetically express our solidarity with the families of the victims,” he said. “Because we in Boston, across all different faiths, fervently believe in the power of prayer.”
Groover asked that the interfaith prayers continue, awaiting the day when churches will “no longer be viciously visited with any kind of violence ever again.”
O’Malley compared racism, in its subtle and not-so subtle insidiousness and contagion, to polio.
“But there is a cure,” he said to applause, “and only love will be able to cure that disease. Only when there is enough love in the world, only when people see others as brothers and sisters.”
One day, O’Malley said, the world will look back upon racism as “a sad memory of a thing that no longer exists.”
Chalres Street AME Associate Pastor Opal Adams said the overwhelming expression of faith has been strengthening. “It’s the faith that keeps you moving on,” she said before the service. “It’s the faith that keeps you strong.”
“We are all one, and I’m a part of that one,” said Ruth LaVerne Venable. The 67-year-old Roxbury native would be singing hymns during the service.
Though struggling to reconcile herself with the tragedy, she said, “the young man did what he did, and it’s for us to forgive. It is not for us to judge, because there’s only one judge that matters.”
Along the front of the overflow chapel, a paper prayer wall stretched across a long table. It was covered with well-wishes and entreaties to keep the faith from congregants at the Charles Street church. The sheet of paper is to be sent to Emanuel AME.
A similarly diverse crowd gathered Sunday morning at the Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain.
The Rev. Ray Hammond approached the pulpit with raw emotion as he encouraged gatherers to keep their faith in God, while taking time to feel angry and demand answers to the “hard questions.”
“I cannot shake this painful reality,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure it out . . . how a young man can come and sit in a prayer service for an hour and then get up and kill three men and six women in cold blood.”
Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson attended the Bethel morning service, and said he stands with the church.
“I am too stubborn to be scared out of church,” he said. Jackson was met with thunderous applause.
At the service in Bethel church, Hammond stood at the altar surrounded by elaborate floral bouquets, sent as gifts in solidarity with the parish. Throughout his remarks he shouted, but often paused, his timbrous voice catching with emotion. He told the congregation that on Wednesday night, when the killings happened, he received calls from local law enforcement, wondering if the church would shut its doors.
“Church is something that gets you through the night,” he said. “There is no place I’d rather be. I don’t run my life on the basis of dark events and that doesn’t change because a gunman lost his mind.”
Throughout his hour-long sermon, ushers walked up and down the aisles, passing out tissues to weeping congregates.
Bill Hughes, a steward at the church, said he had a hard time stopping his tears while he listened to the sermon. The parallels between his life, and the lives of the murdered worshipers are too similar, too frightening not to acknowledge, he said.
“Jesus forgives, but we’re not Jesus. We are human beings,” he said after the service concluded. “To jump across the chasm of anger and despair psychologically, is not healthy.”
Hughes said he hopes people deeply connect with what happened, and don’t gloss over it.
“Feel your anger, feel your sadness, and then go to God and bring that to him,” he said.
Candice Alexander, 48, of Hyde Park attended this service with her family and said she is trying to move forward, passed the tragedy, but is struggling.
“It’s a new period of the Civil Rights movement,” she said. “We’ve been here and thought this page in our history had turned. But now we’re back.”
Alexander and her friend Felicia Wiltz, remained in their pews long after the service concluded, continuing to discuss and reflect.
“There are lots of evil people in this world,” said Wiltz, 53, of West Roxbury. “But it’s particularly stinging when someone walks into a sacred place, and does something like that. How can your hatred be that deep?”
In Cambridge on Sunday morning, the Rev. Willie Bodrick II urged congregants at St. Paul AME to “maintain your faith.”
“How can you maintain your faith in God when things like that happen?” Bodrick recalled a friend asking him hours after the violence in Charleston. “Somebody can walk in the church and sit down for bible study, hear the word of the lord and take it in and in an hour kill everybody . . . Racism and hatred runs so deep to the cores of our country — how can you maintain the faith?”
The answer: “You can’t lose heart in the heat of the battle” said Bodrick, of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, who was invited to speak at the Cambridge Church.
“People are not only shocked, but they’re hurt because of the rich history of black churches being a marker of terrorism, American terrorism,” Bodrick said after the service. “This is a wake-up call not just to pastors, but to the country that if we don’t deal with the wounds of the country . . . we will be holding a lot more vigils and ceremonies.”
Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, was charged with the murder of nine parishioners after he allegedly attended a prayer meeting for an hour at the church before opening fire.
The massacre in Charleston was evoked memories of America’s dark days including the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham Ala., that left three girls dead. Several Klansmen were convicted of murdering the girls.
“It’s the same sort of scenario,” said Donnell Patterson, 56, of Chelsea. “You think you’re in a safe space and boom! It could be any place.”
The incident almost kept 20-year-old Priya Dadlani from attending church on Sunday.
“Out of fear that was my first instinct,” she said of her intial plans to skip church.
“People like [Roof] want to instill fear,” said Carter. “Being Christian, I have no spirit of fear. I’m not going to let that deter me from my faith.”