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Tampa Bay churches mourn for Charleston victims

Carolyn Miles prays during a vigil Thursday for the nine people who were killed in South Carolina. The Without Walls International Church in Tampa hosted the vigil in response to the Wednesday shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Carolyn Miles prays during a vigil Thursday for the nine people who were killed in South Carolina. The Without Walls International Church in Tampa hosted the vigil in response to the Wednesday shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Published Jun. 19, 2015

TAMPA — Geraldine Chastain, 82, has seen a lot of hate in her life: segregation; the Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls; the murders of civil rights workers and, years later, the movement's most prominent leader.

And now, she must watch the country grapple with more hatred: the racially motivated mass shooting that killed the pastor and eight parishioners of a storied black church in South Carolina on Wednesday night.

"It's a very hard pill to swallow," she said. "Ignorance is the reason we're having all this right now."

Prayer and sadness filled black churches throughout the Tampa Bay area as pastors and parishioners alike absorbed the grim toll from what federal authorities called a hate crime.

Chastain and a dozen other congregants of Tampa's Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church prayed twice Thursday for their broken brethren at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

"At this point, that's all that can really help us," Chastain said. "Prayer."

Allen Temple AME Church Rev. David Green, the senior pastor at Tampa's largest AME church, spent his day consoling his congregation, answering the questions of frightened children at the church's summer camp and nursing his own grief.

Green said one of the victims in the Charleston attack was a friend and colleague, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME Church.

"Today is a heavy day," Green said. "It's a sad day for me, it's a sad day for that church and it's a sad day for our denomination."

Green said they attended AME conferences together and became friends. Pinckney also served as a South Carolina legislator for nearly two decades.

"He was able to balance the political and the spiritual side to make a difference," Green said. "He put those forces together to be able to help that community."

Green and other pastors said they're now thinking of ways to keep their churches, congregations and parishioners safe.

"We have to look at security in a different light," Green said. "We have to do church differently now."

Rev. Emery Ailes, a pastor at Pristine Spring Hill Baptist Church in Hernando County, said the mass shooting struck at where the black community should most feel safe.

"The church, particularly the black church, has been a symbol of not only spiritual empowerment but spiritual freedom," Ailes said. "We believe we have sanctuary and safety in a church."

Some pastors tried to look forward, not back. That's what Pastor Doral Pulley of Unity of Midtown Church in St. Petersburg told his congregation during a candlelight vigil for the Charleston victims Thursday evening.

"We will not focus on the problem," Pulley said. "We shall focus on the solution."

Omali Yeshitela, chairman of the African People's Socialist Party, expressed another emotion: anger that the Confederate flag still flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia. He called it a "blatant example" of racism in the state during a news conference Thursday in St. Petersburg.

"It would be a mistake if we treated Dylann Roof as some isolated individual carrying out his own mission," Yeshitela said of the 21-year-old suspect arrested Thursday.

Joyce Moore, 69, the presiding elder over St. Petersburg's AME district, said churchgoers were "stunned" by the deadly attack.

"The thought that someone would disrespect the house of God . . . it's just beyond belief," said Moore, who oversees 17 churches in Pinellas and Manatee counties.

She said none of the pastors she knows plan to cancel or postpone services.

Next week, church leaders will meet to discuss gun violence and possible solutions.

But for now, she said, her churches will mourn.

"If it affects one," she said. "It affects all."

Times staff writer Michael Majchrowicz contributed to this report.