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Emanuel AME church, shooting survivors form bonds with other traumatized houses of worship

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When Melvin Graham's younger sister died four years ago in the Emanuel AME Church massacre, nobody handed him a road map to navigate the odyssey ahead.

The June 17, 2015, shooting, by a self-avowed white supremacist during the church's Bible study, shocked the nation. Not since racists firebombed black churches in the 1960s had hate-filled violence targeted them with such deadly results.

Looking back, Graham sees harbingers. A racist gunman killed six people in the 2012 mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Another killed three people at two Jewish centers in Kansas in 2014.

But Graham didn't see in those congregations his fellow journeymen, not at first.

Since the Emanuel tragedy, however, mass violence has devastated religious communities often enough that they now constitute a macabre sub-genre in America's gun violence epidemic. In response, those most impacted are stepping forward more and more to comfort others set onto the same grim path. 

When an anti-Semitic man killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October, Graham felt as if he could have cut and pasted the names involved in the two shootings — the white supremacist killer, the house of worship, the innocents dead — and have read essentially the same story.

So, he set a pen to paper.

“To the Tree of Life:

I'm writing because I know your pain and what you're going through. You are wounded in ways you do not know. You are forever changed. Hold onto your seat and press forward, and always remember your loved ones.”

Graham wasn't alone. Soon after the shooting, Emanuel's pastor flew to Pittsburgh to offer comfort. A couple months later, Polly Sheppard, who survived the Charleston church shooting, made the same journey to urge the Jewish congregants to seek faith and forgiveness — and professional therapy.

Two weeks later, over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, members of one of the three congregations that worshipped at Tree of Life in turn traveled to Charleston.

A group from New Light Congregation, which lost three members in the shooting, stood up in front of Emanuel’s crimson sanctuary as church members flowed forward to set hands of empathy on them.

Fellow journeymen

Monday will mark four years since an angry young man with murderous intent slipped into Emanuel and headed for 12 people settling in for Bible study. He sat with them for about an hour, not speaking, until they shut their eyes for closing prayer.

Then he pulled out a gun.

Nine people died that night, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and a state senator who was sitting beside the killer. 

And the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., a retired minister who led the study most Wednesdays.

And Myra Thomson, who led it for the first time that night.

And Susie Jackson, at 87 the oldest among them to die.

And her nephew Tywanza Sanders, the youngest at 26.

And their cousin Ethel Lance, the church’s sexton, a mother of five.

And the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, mother of four.

And the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, mother of three.

And Cynthia Graham Hurd, mother of none but mentor to hundreds in her decades as a beloved librarian.

Nine families, the survivors and the church's entire congregation found themselves thrust into a journey through what the Bible calls “the valley of the shadow of death.” Then they relived their losses anew with each mass shooting in America, including the Pulse nightclub massacre almost one year to the day after their loved ones died.

However, for about 18 months, no other house of worship experienced violent loss quite like theirs — until January 2017, when a man walked into the Islamic Center of Quebec City in Canada and killed six. People who knew the shooter said he held white nationalist and anti-immigrant views.

Then, in September 2017, a black man killed a white woman and injured seven others at a Nashville, Tenn., Church of Christ. A note in his car cited vengeance against the convicted Emanuel killer, Dylann Roof.

Two months after that a man gunned down 26 worshippers, including the pastor’s daughter, at First Baptist Church in Texas. It wasn’t a racially motivated crime, but the carnage took place during worship nonetheless.

Less than a year later, in October 2018, a white supremacist entered the Tree of Life synagogue.

Then the carnage spread across oceans as it barreled into 2019.

In March, 50 people died in two mass shootings at mosques in ChristChurch, New Zealand. The killer left a manifesto replete with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim vitriol, including mention of Roof and other violent extremists.

On Easter, more than 250 people died when suicide bombers in Sri Lanka targeted churches and hotels. It wasn’t gun violence, but the terror in sacred places felt horrifically familiar.

And on the last day of Passover, in late April, a gunman killed one person and wounded four, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, at the Chabad synagogue of Poway in California. Authorities said the killer had written anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements in a manifesto.

The rabbi, however, stood just 39 days later at a forum in San Diego to discuss "Confronting Hate, Bigotry and Ignorance" with religious leaders from other communities that had grappled with hate-fueled violence. His left arm in a sling, gesturing with his bandaged right hand, now missing its index finger, Goldstein described seeing a man 10 feet away pointing an AR-15 rifle at him. 

"It changes you," he said.

The Rev. Kylon Middleton, pastor of Mount Zion AME in Charleston and a close friend of Pinckney's, understood. He described the horrors of hearing his friend was dead and consoling Pinckney's wife and two daughters that night four years before. He joined the others in describing struggles to find positive paths forward, namely by trying to unite people.

"We can empathize through our sufferings in order to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else," Middleton told the San Diego audience.

Heidi Beirich leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which publishes its Hatewatch blog, and has chronicled the rise of these crimes.

“There’s no question that religious institutions have been a focal point of domestic terrorists’ attention, driven by white supremacists,” Beirlich said. “It’s a serious problem. And it’s not going away."

Learning from each other

After the Tree of Life shooting, three houses of worship reached out to the Jewish congregants: a nearby black church, a local Sikh temple and someone from the Islamic center in Quebec.

New Light Congregation already had a relationship with the predominantly black Rodman Street Baptist Church. The Baptist congregation held one of many vigils around Pittsburgh.

At the event, New Light’s grieving members stood and clapped and sang and praised God.

They sang songs of the Christian church. They sang songs of the Jewish faith.

“It was the most uplifting thing that happened, a release of emotions and feelings I didn’t even know were bottled up inside of us,” recalled Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light.

A couple days after the shooting, the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh's director reached out. He had received a call from someone at the Quebec mosque.

Several members planned to drive to Pittsburgh to offer support. Could they meet?

“We went, ‘huh?' ” Cohen recalled.

He admits he wasn’t very aware of the shooting there. He couldn't recall ever going to a mosque. Yet four men he'd never met drove 12 hours to meet with the three Tree of Life congregations.

They discussed what happened, the logistics of terror. Then they talked about the public’s reaction, the solidarity.

And then they discussed the future — the reality of their new journey.

“The message was: Be armed. Be aware of your exits and entry points. Do an active shooter training,” Cohen said.

One of the men explained, “My sons are afraid to go to mosque."

Beth Kissileff recalled nodding at that. Her husband, New Light Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, had hidden in a storage closet with three of their members. The gunman shot and killed one, an 87-year-old man who peered out when the shooting quieted for a moment.

Kissileff mentioned that their daughter also was afraid of returning to worship. So were others.

“Unfortunately," she said, "we are part of a network now.”

Pilgrimage to Charleston

Sheppard, the Emanuel shooting survivor, traveled to New Light in early January with a message.

“I just wanted to tell them to seek counseling and to forgive,” Sheppard recalled. “With forgiveness you can move forward in the grace that God has extended to you by leaving you here.”

She also discussed how the Emanuel survivors felt church leaders failed to minister to them and how she now attended a different church.

That struck Cohen. As co-president of New Light, he considered what he needed to do for its members.

“You need to listen to the heart,” Cohen realized.

Then Kissileff came to him with an idea: “Maybe we need to see how other people are dealing with this.”

They wanted communion with those who understood their grief so closely. And they wanted to spread a narrative of fighting white supremacy. So, a few weeks after Sheppard’s visit, on MLK weekend, they headed 700 miles south to Charleston.

That Friday, they attended Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the local Reform congregation, where Sheppard joined them.

On that Sunday, they stood in a mass of sorrow at Emanuel’s altar rail as church members came forward from their pews to wrap them in a sea of tears and shared understanding.

Emanuel's pastor, the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, made them a promise that day: “From this congregation, from the depths of our hearts, you are not alone. We will be there.”

Afterward, he met privately with the group for about two hours. They peppered him with questions about what to do, what to expect. Manning wasn’t assigned to Emanuel until a year after the shooting, so he talked about what to expect if the shooter went to trial.

Cohen took away some key advice: “What wounds and thoughts that you’d thought had passed are going to come back to the surface.”

Manning's words reminded Kissileff of the Torah reading about Jethro being Moses’ eyes.

“He was sort of the eyes for us,” Kissileff said of Manning. “It really was very important for us to have those eyes into the future.”

Where the lambs are

Last month, Manning and nine Emanuel members, including members of Myra Thompson's family, journeyed back to Pittsburgh. Now, on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the Emanuel shooting, leaders from the two houses of worship will come together again.

Tree of Life's Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who also survived that shooting, will join Manning for a discussion at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Charleston Music Hall as part of the third Charleston Forum. 

Melvin Graham, who wrote that letter to Tree of Life in the fall, is happy to see the various congregations helping one another. They will need one another.

At first, he thought the Emanuel massacre that claimed his sister Cynthia was a “one-off,” the fluke of a deranged racist.

Instead, he predicts the crowd on their journey will multiply.

“Where the lambs are," he said, "the wolves come.”

Contact Jennifer Hawes at 843-937-5563. Follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

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