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South Carolina

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Bethel AME Church in Setauket. File photo by Alyssa Melillo

“It changed, so how can we?”

That is the question Rev. Greg Leonard of Setauket’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church has asked the Three Village community, and that is the question residents will have the chance to answer at a special service planned for next week. Leonard and more than 100 members of his church hosted a moving ceremony in the aftermath of June’s horrific shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and he said Black History Month was an appropriate time to reflect.

“At the previous meeting, we started to build bridges to one another and we want to continue doing this,” he said. “And with this being Black History Month, Bethel wanted to take leadership and hold an event at which all people — because black history isn’t just for black people — can come together.”

Bethel AME scheduled the gathering for Saturday, Feb. 27 at 3 p.m. at the church, located at 33 Christian Ave. in Setauket.

Rev. Gregory Leonard leads a service at Bethel AME Church in Setauket. File photo by Alyssa Melillo
Rev. Gregory Leonard leads a service at Bethel AME Church in Setauket. File photo by Alyssa Melillo

The event flyer that Bethel AME Church has been distributed promoted the hash tag #PrayForCharleston, which went viral following the June 17, 2015 shooting that killed nine African Americans at a church in South Carolina. The flyer also challenged the Three Village community with moving the dialogue forward to address racial issues and injustice across America.

“The primary issue we’re talking about is change,” Leonard said. “It’s about how this change happens on a community-wide basis, and also on an individual basis.”

North Shore native Leroy White lost his second cousin DePayne Middleton Doctor in the tragedy and said the outpouring of support from Three Village families was overwhelming in the days following the shooting.

“What we saw was a community coming together so well that it was almost unbelievable,” White said in an interview in June. “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.”

Since the shooting, Leonard said he has already seen strides made across the country to enhance the discussion about race in America. He cited the removal of the Confederate flag outside a state building in South Carolina back in July as a pivotal moment showing what could be achieved through common understanding.

“That was a revolutionary moment,” he said. “I think no matter how people might have felt, the remembrance of the tragedy and also the great grace the people had in terms of forgiveness after the fact can begin to build bridges, even to people who feel they might oppose your stance on any particular matter.”

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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.