Thousands who filed into TD Arena for a prayer vigil Friday night united for one purpose: To deal with an unfathomable horror as a community.
The service, hosted by the city of Charleston, came two days after a gunman unleashed unprecedented violence inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church killing nine, reportedly while spewing racist comments.
Family of the victims filled the arena’s front rows, looking worn and disconsolate, hanging on to each speaker’s words. State lawmakers, law enforcement officers, clergymen and the Charleston area and beyond surrounded them.
The attendees included Matthew Boyd Sr. and his wife Barbara. The church doors the gunman walked through late Wednesday were the same ones the West Ashley couple had walked through a year ago on their son’s wedding day.
Barbara Boyd recalled the “wonderful sense of humor” of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, who died from bullet wounds suffered in the gunfire.
During better times, Lance and Barbara Boyd had joked about hordes of leftover food from that wedding.
“‘I won’t have to cook for weeks,’ ” Lance had said.
“When I heard what happened, my legs just started shaking,” Barbara Boyd said. “It could have happened to anyone. It could have happened to me.”
Matthew Boyd paused for a beat, pondering the memory, his grief apparent in his eyes.
“I feel like I just lost a family member,” he said. “I stayed up all night; I couldn’t sleep.”
Attendees held variegated roses that were given out along with red ones at the arena’s door.
Konjit Girard and Kenneth Rombouts drove up Friday from Savannah, bringing their 1-year-old son, Benjamin Rombouts, in a stroller. They went to Emanuel AME church, went looking for roses to lay on the sanctuary wall and turned up at the vigil with a half-dozen red roses they planned to return to the church to lay.
She is from Ethiopia; he is from Belgium.
“Just to show that we are one, that’s why we are here,” Girard said.
“We cannot accept hatred like this,” he said. “It hurts too much. This is the least we can do.”
Up in the farthest seat in the rafters, College of Charleston basketball player Joe Chealey watched as thousands of people filled an arena he usually sees from the floor.
“It’s good to see everybody come together when something like this happens. I consider this my home just as much as Orlando, almost. Anything like this hits home. This close to me, it hits harder,” he said.
He was joined by Erik Goldbach, the team manager.
“Such a tragic, horrific terrorist attack,” Goldbach said. “It’s good to see that one man cannot tear down what this city is made of. He’s brought it to life.”
Out on the concourse, a mom led a tiny child by one hand as he clutched a rose by the other, clutched it tight just beneath the bloom. The bloom snapped and the child began to tug at his mom to go back for the stem fallen on the floor. Then he turned back to see he still had the bloom, and kept going.
Attendees heard prepared statements from multiple speakers, including state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston; Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey; Charleston Mayor Joe Riley; the Rev. Nelson Rivers III of Charity Missionary Baptist Church; and others.
They sang hymns “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” held hands and swayed to a rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”
Statements made during the vigil reiterated common themes of love, faith and unity.
“We share one thing in common. ... Our hearts are broken. We have an anguish like we have never had before,” Riley said.
The gunman’s reported beliefs on race and segregation are outdated and “in the dustpan of failed civilizations,” Riley said. If he had hoped to divide the city through hate and bigotry, “he miserably failed,” Riley said, receiving a boisterous applause from the audience.
“In our broken hearts, we realize we love each other more,” he said.
Funds that continue to be raised to support the families will contribute toward funeral costs, to support the church and initiatives that the church’s pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, had pushed for before he too was killed in the shooting.
Riley vowed to dedicate the city’s forthcoming International African American Museum to the victims, with an exhibit centered on the history of Emanuel AME and Pinckney. Construction is scheduled to begin on the project as early as 2017.
Multiple speakers drew repeated cheers from the crowd with calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds in the wake of the tragedy.
Also in attendance was NBA player Dwight Howard, of the Houston Rockets, who met with the family of the victims after the vigil’s conclusion.
Word of the killings saddened him, he said, adding that the shooting should serve as a call for action.
“We all need to wake up and realize what’s going on around us,” he said. “Change starts with ourselves. ... The best thing we can all do is try and stop this from happening.”
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