Leaders of Charlotte’s most prominent African-American churches reacted with shock and heartbreak Thursday to news that a pastor and eight others had been shot to death in a historic black Charleston church.
“Everyone is just horrified,” said the Rev. Dwayne Walker, pastor of 1,000-member Little Rock AME Zion, a church near uptown Charlotte that hosted a Thursday night prayer vigil for the victims. “My heart just goes out to the pastor’s family and all of the families.”
One of those families has a connection to Friendship Missionary Baptist Church: former North Carolina Sen. Malcolm Graham, whose sister was one of those killed, attends the church of 8,000-plus on Beatties Ford Road.
“Deeply, deeply saddened,” Friendship Missionary Baptist Pastor Clifford Jones Sr. said about the tragedy. “It’s not rational. It’s not anything. An individual killed nine people who ... were in a church praying and studying God’s word.”
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Jones said Graham’s “church family will certainly embrace him.”
The killings by a white man at Emanuel AME Church have also caused Charlotte houses of worship, especially black churches, to renew their assessment of security arrangements.
“We are constantly looking at ways in which we can ensure the safety of our members,” The Park, a predominantly black church with 9,000 members, said in a Thursday statement. “The Charleston incident confirms the need for constant reflection and consideration in terms of ways to increase these efforts.”
Ed Holland, church administrator at Friendship Missionary Baptist, said his church has been moving ahead with more security measures.
“We’re always on alert,” Holland said. “It’s something that we’re aware of, but we’re not public about it.”
Walker agreed there is “some concern” about church security, but said he wanted Little Rock AME Zion to remain an open and welcoming place.
“We definitely don’t want to get to the point where we feel the need to put metal detectors at the church entrance,” he said. “It’s still God’s house – the safest place in the world.”
Little Rock AME Zion is the Charlotte flagship church of the AME Zion denomination, which has its national headquarters in Charlotte. It is short for African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
The Charleston church, Emanuel AME Church, belongs to a separate denomination, the AME – or African Methodist Episcopal – Church.
The two predominantly black denominations “have the same doctrine, the same system of governance,” said Walker. “And both were founded out of a need for (African-Americans) to be treated fairly.”
Both denominations were also founded in the 19th century, before the Civil War, AME in Philadelphia and AME Zion in New York.
Walker said he and other regional AME Zion clergy were meeting in Greensboro on Wednesday night when they heard the news about the shootings in Charleston. Charlotte-based AME Zion Bishop George Battle led the group in prayer, Walker said.
At Friendship Missionary Baptist, Holland said church staff members met Thursday morning, shared their feelings and prayed.
And The Park, whose pastor is Bishop Claude Alexander, began its statement by saying that “our hearts and prayers go out to the victims, their families and the entire Charleston community.”