Over its long, difficult and yet triumphant history, Emanuel AME Church has inspired people to remember “God with us” — a translation of the name Emanuel. God was with the church and its members during years of racial oppression and strife. God was with them after the 1886 earthquake leveled the wooden church building, which was replaced by the present masonry structure. And God was with them as members baptized their young, celebrated marriages, and buried their dead.
So it was altogether fitting that, in the aftermath of the devastating slaying of nine church members at a Bible study Wednesday night, the community looked to Emanuel for guidance and comfort that God is with us.
Hundreds of people attended Thursday’s noon prayer vigil at Morris Brown AME Church. They were loyal AME Church members and people from a host of other denominations and faiths.
They were friends and family members mourning their lost loved ones, and they were people mourning the loss of strangers. They all were mourning the act of hatred and the erosion of the community’s sense of security.
The congregation was, as one minister noted, unusually “colorful” — white and black singing, praying and crying together. But mostly praying.
The vigil was notable for what it wasn’t. It wasn’t used to condemn but to uplift. The anguished mourners focused on their faith, not on anger.
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn spoke of his faith and urged other people of faith not to be silent.
Mayor Joe Riley said, “Our hearts are broken,” but he assured the assembled that the community would respond in healing love and support.
Both Rep. Clyburn and Mayor Riley shared messages from President Barack Obama promising support from the nation.
And Mayor Riley said Vice President Joe Biden also had called him to extend his sympathy — he with a broken heart of his own following his son’s recent death, Mr. Riley noted.
And all the while, outside of the church, many more who were unable to get in the packed church prayed too. And they sang — “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Law enforcement officers, certainly dealing with their own grief, managed the overflow crowd with respectful efficiency.
Across the street, a business welcomed people to get out of the sun and to have a cold bottle of water.
Gov. Nikki Haley, in her remarks during the vigil, looked over the massive crowd and said that they represented South Carolina. South Carolina is not the hate-filled man who shot nine people to death.
South Carolina, like other states, is not immune from hatred and racism. But fortunately, South Carolina is also people who can — and will — face tragedies and use the experience to be stronger and better, God with us.