First AME Church Vigil marked by rousing sermons by L.A. clergy, civic leaders of all denominations

On Thursday evening, as the country began to mourn the nine African Americans murdered one day before by a white gunman at a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, people of all faiths and races joined with congregants of First AME Church in South Los Angeles for an emotional, and, at times rousing prayer vigil.
June 19, 2015

On June 18, as the country began to mourn the nine African-Americans murdered one day before by a white gunman at a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, S.C., people of all faiths and races joined with congregants of First AME Church in South Los Angeles for an emotional and at times rousing prayer vigil. 

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti gave an impassioned speech favoring gun control, while dozens of clergy — among them the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd of First AME Church and Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah — spoke of the historic significance of Emanuel AME Church and its legacy of fighting racism in America for nearly 200 years. Many of the clergy also addressed the need for gun control legislation, while they shared their own faiths’ teachings on love, anger and compassion. 

“I think that an attack against any faith is an attack against all faiths,” Klein said during a brief interview before the vigil. “When I picture 13 people in a small prayer circle … that small group of people just coming together, and then being slaughtered, being butchered — I feel like it could be any one of us. They were speaking the same prayers that all of us speak. I feel that we are all part of the same tree of life, and that someone took an ax to that tree.”

Temple Isaiah and First AME Church have had a 30-year relationship of shared services and social action. “Our congregations have really merged into a multifaith family,” Klein said.

Klein’s rousing speech addressed the 5-year-old girl who survived the incident because her grandmother told her to play dead. Klein declared: “We are sorry that we have not uprooted racism after all this time. We are sorry that we whitewash the problem in our media. We are sorry that we have been deaf to the voice of the suffering. We are sorry that you live in fear of brutality. We are sorry that we have not figured out responsible gun legislation in this country. We are sorry that we haven’t worked hard enough for you.” Her words, spoken with passion, like many throughout the evening, drew the crowd of some 400 people of all races to their feet in extended applause multiple times.

The clergy members who spoke also included Bhante Chao Chu, abbot of Rosemead Buddhist Monastery and president of the Los Angeles Buddhist Union, Pastor K of the Church Without Walls on Skid Row, Simon Simonian of the Quaker Society of Friends, Robert Adams of the Church of Scientology International and many more. Bishop Theodore Kirkland presided over the vigil.

Pastors from Black churches of many denominations across Los Angeles said that once the initial shock of the killings had sunk in — the feeling of being flung back in time to the Southern church bombings of the early 1960s — they were left feeling both anger and anguish.   

“I immediately had visions of 1963 ‘Bombingham,’ when the churches were being bombed in Birmingham, Ala.,” the Rev. John Cager III of Ward AME Church said prior to the vigil. “We had thought that, at least from a racial perspective, that we were long past that day when we see that kind of violence in Black churches.

“And many of us were fooled — lulled into this sense of post-racial America after the election of President [Barack] Obama. So when an event like this happens, it really brings on feelings of despair,” Cager said. 

In addition to Garcetti, city representatives included prosecutors from City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office, and officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department. 

Acknowledging the pain parishioners felt, Boyd opened the vigil by saying the night would be solely about the nine victims and the heritage they represent. To utter the killer’s name, he said, would be to honor him, so 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, who was arrested in North Carolina on June 18 and is now charged with nine murder counts, would not be named at the vigil. 

As Boyd read short descriptions of each of the deceased, Geraldine Hayes — a longtime member of First AME Church who is from South Carolina and knew the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., one of the victims, since childhood — lit nine candles that burned throughout the vigil in front of the pulpit.  

“We will extinguish the candle, but not extinguish our memory of them,” Boyd said. 

Emanuel AME Church is the oldest Black church south of Baltimore. Morris Brown and Denmark Vesey founded it in 1816, almost 50 years before the end of slavery. White supremacist arsonists burned down the church in 1822. Just 14 years later, all Black congregations in Charleston were outlawed, and the congregation moved underground until the end of the Civil War in 1865. 

The first building at the current site was completed in 1872, although an earthquake destroyed it again in 1886. The structure that stands today was completed in 1891. 

Building on this history, Garcetti said the church’s history is proof that “a church is not the walls that contain it,” but rather “the people and the faith inside of it.”  

“It was the old Jewish priests that were taught that there are three relationships in this world that are holy,” Garcetti said. “First is that law given to us from God. … The second relationship is our relationship back up to God, that of prayer. … And the third is our relationship with each other. … Last night, a gunman cut short all three of those divine relationships. But the church cannot be destroyed.” 

Garcetti and others joined Obama in his call Thursday for tighter restrictions on the purchasing of guns. 

But as retired Bishop Cornel G. Henning and Klein each pointed out, while the histories of the Emanuel AME Church and of racist violence in the United States are full of moments of rebuilding, the sources of bigotry toward Blacks remain firmly planted in the South and, in different ways, in the rest of the country.

In South Carolina, the Confederate flag remains a prominent emblem, “almost an open defiance, an open recognition of, ‘We don’t believe there was anything wrong with what was done during the period of slavery, or during the period of Jim Crow,’ ” Cager said. In the rest of the country, right-wing radio preaches a gospel of race war. 

“The seeds of this tragedy will continue to exist until its causes have been fully addressed and we as a people and a nation have acquired zero tolerance for it — when we can stop explaining to ourselves why we can’t and decide that we will because we must,” Henning said.

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