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Faith unshaken: Bellefonte memorial service honors Charleston church shooting victims

Folks of all race, age, and beliefs join hands to sing “We Shall Overcome” to end the service of remembrance for the nine victims of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston at St. Paul A.M.E. Church in Bellefonte on Sunday, June 21, 2015.
Folks of all race, age, and beliefs join hands to sing “We Shall Overcome” to end the service of remembrance for the nine victims of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston at St. Paul A.M.E. Church in Bellefonte on Sunday, June 21, 2015. CDT photo

They overcame the discomfort of packing themselves into a single room on a muggy day to come together in a show of respect for the departed.

Black and white, young and old — all were welcomed Sunday through the doors of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bellefonte for a memoral service honoring the nine slain Wednesday at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

“Even though we have come together for what is truly a solemn occasion, we have come together in this space because we have faith,” the Rev. AnneMarie Mingo, of the 11th District AME of Florida, said. “And we believe that even those who have passed, they have not left. ... We will see them again.”

The nine, six women and three men, had gathered for a Bible study Wednesday night at the church after a quarterly AME conference, Mingo said. What had started as a group of 30 to 40 dwindled as the day went on, and only a few had remained into the evening.

The service Sunday opened with a brief history of the Bellefonte church itself, which started in 1853. At that time, believers met at different houses until an actual church was constructed in 1859 on what became St. Paul Street.

That church was destroyed in a fire in 1909, Mingo said, and a new church was built in 1910 — the same one that stands today. Historical records affirm the church was a station on the underground railroad, and efforts are in progress to acquire a historical marker for the church.

The AME church was initially started in 1787 in Philadelphia, she said. The Emanuel church in Charleston is one of the oldest AME churches in the South, and is still the oldest black church south of Baltimore.

Mingo listed the victims one by one, lighting a tea candle for each fallen name.

She talked about the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, who was a personal friend and had been pastoring since the age of 18. She described him as a “really good, strong, Christian man” and the father of two young girls.

She named the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a mother of three and minister at the church who served as a speech therapist and track and field coach at Goose Creek High School.

She named Cynthia Hurd, a 54-year-old librarian for the Charleston County public library. After serving the system for 31 years, one of the libraries will be named after her.

Susie Jackson was the oldest of the nine, she said. At age 87, she was an active and faithful member of the church for almost all her life.

Ethel Lee Vance, 70, had also been a longtime member of the church and a loving mother and grandmother. As a custodian, she shared her skills with the church by serving as a sexton.

She named the Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49, a staff minister who sang in the choir and worked as an admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University.

The youngest of the nine, Tywanza Sanders, 26, died because he was trying to save another family member, she said. A recent graduate of Allen University, he was a loved barber in the area.

The Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74, was known in the denomination as “Super Simmons,” she said. Though retired, he continued to serve and was always trying to help others through his wonderful personality.

Finally, Myra Thompson, 59, was the wife of the Rev. Anthony Thompson, vicar of the Holy Trinity Reform Episcopal Church in Charleston, she said.

“It’s interesting that the young man decided that he ‘had to do that’ because he wanted to start a race war,” Mingo said of the suspected gunman. “He wanted to create diversion. But our presence here today is clear evidence that he failed.”

State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham was in attendance, and said the memorial showed the strong faith the community has.

“It was deeply moving,” she said. “I took away personally to be more active and speaking out in ways that will bring us all together.”

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