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.
“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.