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Dylann Roof

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Residents read the names of all Charleston and Orlando victims, who each had a candle lit in their memory. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

On Friday evening, a diverse group of pastors and residents showed that, in the wake of unspeakable tragedy, there is more good in the world than evil.

They gathered together at the Mount Sinai Congregational Church to honor the nine churchgoers who were killed a year ago in a shooting spree during a peaceful Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as the 49 killed in an all-too-similar fashion in a gay nightclub in Orlando last week. While both massacres are products of hatred and bigotry, those who attended Friday’s service united under a theme of love and acceptance.

The service of remembrance was organized by the Mount Sinai church and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Setauket, where a North Shore family related to one of the nine people shot and killed go regularly and last year’s service for victims was held. Just a week after 21-year-old Dylann Roof sat down in a Charleston church, participated in the readings, engaged with others, and ultimately stood up to open fire and take lives, the Three Village community showed up in droves to pay respects.

Greatly touched by the healing that took place, Bethel AME pastor Rev. Gregory Leonard and Mount Sinai resident Tom Lyon were quick to ensure this year’s anniversary service and, in light of another mass murder, a call for unity and support seemed necessary now more than ever.

Willie White, a Setauket resident, holds up a picture of his second cousin, a victim in the Charleston shooting. Photo by Kevin Redding
Willie White, a Setauket resident, holds up a picture of his second cousin, a victim in the Charleston shooting. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s important that people of goodwill come together,” Leonard said to the intimate and emotional crowd. “We have to build bridges and get to know each other. As I press on in years, I think about the legacy that we will leave, and I hope all of us can say at one point that we were building some bridges, we came together and we cared and didn’t just let a moment pass us by.”

Setauket church member Willie White held up a picture of his cousin, the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, one of the victims in Charleston, and spoke at length about dealing with a tragedy that hits so close to home.

His family in Charleston had to wait hours after news broke of the shooting before they knew anything, he said, reduced to unbearable panic trying to call and get hold of their loved one, who would soon be confirmed as one of the fallen.

He called to action the importance of not seeing one another as different, saying that we are capable of avoiding future tragedies if we stand together. This is something he notices often in the aftermath of a traumatizing incident.

“I saw people of all walks of life hugging each other,” White said. “Why can’t we live like that every day? On that particular night, Charleston changed. The people changed. Unfortunately, it took nine lives for a change. I’m sure there’s gonna be a change in Florida. But look how many lives it took. We can think back on so many lives that have been taken with guns. And still, guns are on the market.”

Emotionally battered and certainly passionate about a need for change, Shahina Chaudry, a Muslim from the area, stood up and explained that her brother was among the 67 people killed by terrorists in the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, and she understands exactly what the grieving families are going through.

“May God be with them, may God make them strong,” she said. “And may there be big, big changes in this country and may we all be part of those changes. I’m happy to be with all of you.”

A resident named Ira Apsel then stood up and faced Chaudry, offering his condolences.

“An old Hebrew prayer is ‘shalom aleichem,’ meaning ‘peace be with you’, and the response is ‘aleichem shalom,’ meaning ‘and also with you’… Shalom aleichem.”

“Aleichem shalom,” Chaudry responded.

Apsel composed himself as much as possible when he said that everybody has so much in common, and the evil in society must not be allowed to keep everybody apart. Leonard helped solidify this notion by leading the church in a sing-along of “This Little Light of Mine” before the names of each and every victim of Charleston and Orlando were read and honored with lit candles.

Before the service ended and people took time to commiserate with each other, Mount Sinai pastor Ron Wood drove home the importance of acceptance.

“Places where you gather with others like you, essentially, are sanctuaries,” he said. “Where you can be who you are without judgment. Pulse was a sanctuary. AME Church was a sanctuary. A sanctuary isn’t a place to escape. It’s a place to be strengthened and nurtured.”

As everybody filed out of the church, they were holding each other, laughing and smiling, and appearing even more unified than they were upon entering only an hour or so prior. In the wake of a tragedy that should destroy all hope and joy, the Mount Sinai Congregational Church was certainly a place to be strengthened and nurtured.

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Our nation suffered yet another tragedy last week when an avowed racist allegedly murdered nine people at the famous Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and it didn’t take long for the debates to start.

Should the Confederate flag still be flown? Does institutional racism still exist? Should the suspected shooter, Dylann Roof, be labeled as a terrorist?

The correct answer depends on whom you are speaking to. Most people already have an opinion and are sticking to it, which really doesn’t solve any of the important issues this most recent incident brings to light. Nine innocent people are still dead.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups nationwide has increased by 30 percent since 2000. In addition, antigovernment groups rose from 149 in 2008 to 874 in 2014 — numbers that jumped following the financial downturn and the election of President Barack Obama. The center also cited an influx of nonwhite immigrants as another factor.

“This growth in extremism has been aided by mainstream media figures and politicians who have used their platforms to legitimize false propaganda about immigrants and other minorities and spread the kind of paranoid conspiracy theories on which militia groups thrive,” the center said on its website.

We are lucky to live in a country that values freedom of speech and there are countless platforms to voice our opinions today as the Internet continues to connect us. But, it also gives individuals a space to spread their message with like-minded people. Our nation has a serious case of confirmation bias — the tendency to read, listen and seek out information that we agree with — and it is a big issue.

Those who condemn the killings but continue to spew vitriol are fueling a fire. The effects of the South Carolina shooting rippled throughout the country because they could happen in any community, including our own. In fact, one of the victims was a blood relative of a family from Port Jefferson.

The chilling notion that hatred and racism still persist in modern American society should not be ignored. Our freedoms come with responsibility and those who preach hatred against any group of people are wrong. As a society we need to be kinder, or at least remember the lessons we learned as children.

Let’s think before we speak, and if we don’t have anything nice to say, let’s not say it at all.

Pam White and her family speak at Sunday’s service in Setauket. Photo from Marlyn Leonard

Setauket is 830 miles away from Charleston, S.C. But on Sunday, that could not have been closer to home.

An openly racist gunman suspected to be 21-year-old Dylann Roof opened fire at South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last Wednesday, killing nine, including a relative of one North Shore family. And on Sunday, Three Village took that national tragedy and balled it up into a clear and concise community-driven message that puts love in the face of evil as more than 100 people flooded the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Setauket to show solidarity.

“What we saw was a community coming together so well that it was almost unbelievable,” said Leroy White, whose second cousin DePayne Middleton Doctor lost her life in the tragic shooting last week. “The response was so overwhelming that we were taken aback by the number of people who showed up. It showed me that this is one of the better communities in America.”

White and more than 10 other members of his family moved to Port Jefferson from South Carolina nearly five decades ago and have since been active members of the Setauket church, working as volunteers and striving to better the Three Village community. His oldest daughter Pam White was even one of the several speakers at Sunday’s service, which called on particular themes of forgiveness, love and respect, before the family headed down to South Carolina earlier this week to pay respects.

“It was powerful and packed,” said Mount Sinai resident Tom Lyon, a member of the church and longtime friend of the White family. “There was such a large contingent of folks from various parts of the community. It was very much a healing event.”

Gregory Leonard, pastor at the Bethel AME Church, referred to the White family as one of the congregation’s longest-serving families and have embedded themselves into the greater leadership of the church. He said the family’s impact on the greater North Shore community was on full display Sunday as members from groups outside of just the Bethel AME congregation came out to show support and mourn.

“What I realized is that the shooting down in South Carolina did not only affect the members of that church, or the members of the black community, but the entire community. I could see it in the faces of those people on Sunday,” Leonard said of the Sunday service. “We needed to come together to mourn and draw strength from one another.”

Other speakers at the service also included state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station).

“The sense of hatred that was calculated by a very twisted individual to inspire a race war was defeated by the response of the victims’ families, who said, ‘we forgive you,'” Englebright said. “We’ve already had a race war. It was called the Civil War. We are not going to have another race war. So how important it is, then, that the stars and bars Confederate battle flag that still flies over the South Carolina capital comes down.”

Marlyn Leonard of Bethel AME said she jumped to action in the aftermath of the hate-infused shooting last week and did not stop until Sunday’s service became reality. She said the lingering sentiments of pain and racism were immediately put to rest when she saw cars lining the streets near the Setauket church and more than 120 people packing the building to light candles for the victims.

“This happened in South Carolina, but we were hit right at home,” she said. “But the White family, like those of the other victims, was still forgiving. They are a wonderful family and we thank God the day turned out wonderfully.”

Looking ahead, Leonard said he hoped the greater Three Village community learned a lesson in the wake of the tragedy, spurring interfaith groups to come together.

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