Local AME congregations react to Charleston tragedy

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — Wednesday night’s shooting tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. is impacting congregations in Hampton Roads.

Elizabeth Swilley is a member of Emanuel AME Church in Portsmouth. She told 10 On Your Side of the news, “It was so shocking. I couldn’t believe it when it came through on the air.”

Swilley has seen a lot in her 84 years, but this hit home. “Our hearts at Emanuel are broken,” she said. Emanuel AME in Portsmouth is where Swilley grew up. The historic church, with many facets built by slaves, bears the same name of the church in Charleston, and the congregation is left grieving.

Police say nine people there were shot and killed Wednesday night at the hands of a man witnesses say sat in the church for an hour during a bible study before pulling the trigger.

“So now we have people going to church to hear the word of God to pray and give thanksgiving, and to think about someone is sitting there waiting to do deadly harm,” Swilley said.

Swilley told WAVY.com the tragedy that’s hit the church now reminds her of one more than 50 years ago, when four little girls were killed in a church in Alabama.

Swilley told WAVY.com, “When that happened, we didn’t ever think that another church would go through this sorrow again.”

But now that this community is mourning, looking for answers and trying to cope with a shocking crisis, Swilley said their faith must be unwavering. “There is only one God, so we are going to serve Him regardless to what happens,” she said.

Pastor Andre Jefferson said he had just left bible study at Bethel AME Church in Hampton when he turned on the radio and could do nothing but pause. “I was devastated,” Pastor Jefferson said. “I knew of that pastor. To have thought that something like that could happen to him, I couldn’t process it.”

Pastor Jefferson said he met Reverend Pinkney in South Carolina nearly a decade ago, during a church conference.

“I don’t think it would be too much to say that he was kind of a Martin Luther King type of person. He had that kind of presence. He reminded me of a servant leader, a person that really had these amazing gifts, but really did not want to lord it over people, but he wanted to really serve people, lead them in the way they should go,” Jefferson said.

With the congregation in Charleston front of mind, Pastor Jefferson can’t help but think about his parishioners and what happens next.

“Continue to be vigilant, be sensitive to the changing environment that we have in the world, but at the same time, not change in the core of what we do and who we are,” he said.

Although not changing what they do, Jefferson said churches have changed how they do things. “It’s something that none of us can ignore now,” he said.

At Bethel AME, there are security cameras, doors are unlocked from the inside, and Pastor Jefferson said there is a security team in place. However, he admits, none of that may matter.

“We just have to be as wise as we can. We also realize that if someone wants to do something of this nature, it’s not much anybody can do,” he said.

Chester W. Morris, presiding elder of the Norfolk Eastern Shore District of the Virginia Annual Conference, supervises nearly half of the 66 AME churches in Virginia. He told 10 On Your Side, “We just cannot live in fear. We’ve got to find a way to still live, with precautions, but still keeping our faith in God.”

A mass prayer vigil is planned for Monday night, however, the time and location has not yet been released.

WAVY.com has learned of several local churches holding prayer services for the Charleston shooting victims Thursday night — click here for details.

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