JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Pastors in Florida are reacting after a white man who joined a prayer meeting inside a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Wednesday night fatally shot nine people, including the pastor.
Bishop Adam Richardson Jr., who leads about 400 congregations of the AME Church in Florida and the Bahamas, is one of several pastors in the Jacksonville area who have been to that church and knows Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
"A devastating blow, not only to the African American Episcopal Church, (but) to the city as a whole, to the south as a whole," Richardson said. "What does it say for America as a whole?"
Richardson said God has a plan and he has faith his church will make it through this tragic time.
"We didn't build these churches to be empty," Richardson said. "It's a frightful situation going forward. I am sure individual congregations will be studying this matter, beefing up security."
At an AME gathering at a hotel at Jacksonville International Airport on Thursday morning, Richardson joined about 150 people praying for those involved in the shooting, as well as the suspect, who was taken into custody without incident in Shelby, North Carolina, Thursday morning.
The Rev. Bishop Rudolph McKissick Jr., with Bethel Baptist Church in Jacksonville, is en route to Charleston to preach a nondenominational sermon. He was already scheduled to give the sermon, but obviously is changing his message in light of what happened.
"Had to change my whole thought process now to a message of hope, a message of comfort," McKissick said. "To be sure not to go there with any message of race baiting or race blaming. Racism is evil. It stands on its own. I don't need to get into that. I'm going to preach a message of comfort, hope, and turn this into community service. Just so happens that I was already scheduled so a lot falls on me to be the voice tonight. I plan to be responsible for that."
Pastor Mark Griffin, of Wayman Industries in Jacksonville, said he knew some of the victims.
"[At] our church, we have a number of meetings where we connect with the various members. And in fact, two of the nine people, including the pastor as well as Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., were people that I've known through working in the church," Griffin said.
The pastor said he will try to find a way to commemorate the families of the victims this Sunday, as they try to make it through Father's Day.
"It's going to be an interesting day because, as you know, it's Father's Day, and yet in Charleston, South Carolina, there will be children who will be celebrating Father's Day without their father who were murdered in such a vicious way," said Griffin.
He also plans to talk about the issue of violence to his congregation. And as a result of this incident, he expects his churches and many others will restructure their security protocol.
"We have certain protocols in place, but quite frankly, given the events of the past 24 hours, we're going to have to go back and look at our plan and really make sure we have a plan that is sound and solid enough. Not only to get us through incidents where someone might try to come and rob the church, but in case you have someone who tries to come to the church and does something as demeaning as this young man," Griffin said.
Although authorities are calling this a hate crime, Griffin said he warned his congregation Thursday evening to not store hate in their hearts.
"The only way that you conquer hate is with love, and I think that we have to still be a loving people," Griffin said. "I think it's very important that we don't stereotype everyone just because of what this one individual did."
Mother Emanuel AME Church has a significant history, not only to people who attend the church, but to the denomination.
Free blacks and slaves founded the church in 1791. At first they were members of Charleston's Methodist Episcopal Church, but in 1816, they left their white counterparts in a dispute over burial grounds.
In 1822, the church was burned to the ground, after plans for a slave revolt were exposed. The congregation rebuilt the church and after the Civil War they adopted the name "Emanuel," meaning "God with us."
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it was a destination stop for many of the leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Today, the church is a fixture in Charleston with the largest capacity of any African-American church in Charleston.