Local pastors preach unity in wake of Charleston massacre

— Staff writers Ariel Hart, Carrie Teegardin, Tammy Joyner, Gracie Bonds Staples, Janel Davis, Chris Seward, Jennifer Brett and Scott Peacocke contributed to this article.

One by one the names of the victims of the Charleston shootings were read aloud, followed by the tolling of a solitary church bell during a somber memorial Sunday morning at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

“Precious in the sight of God is the death of the saints,” said Ebenezer’s pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

Today, said Warnock, “We’re all AME,” referring to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where gunman Dylann Roof fatally shot nine congregants during Wednesday night services.

One mile away, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the Rev. Dan Matthews devoted his entire sermon to the tragedy in South Carolina, emphasizing the forgiveness expressed by family members of the victims during Roof’s court appearance Friday.

“If we gather together in outrage because hatred and murder have found their ways into the sacred halls of God’s house, then we most certainly have missed the point to be learned in this moment,” Matthews said. “Because if hatred and murder have no place in God’s house, then they have no place in God’s world either.”

It was a message repeated throughout metro Atlanta’s houses of worship, where the events of this past week hung heavy on the hearts and minds of parishioners.

Jackson Memorial Baptist Church pastor Gregory Sutton called on worshippers “to act like church people ought to act and respond like church people should respond and that is to forgive — even the shooter — and let’s come together as one in the midst of this and pray for one another.”

At Big Bethel AME Church, the oldest predominantly African-American congregation in Atlanta, the Rev. John Foster noted how Roof sought a race war “and instead there came an outpouring of love.”

Warnock put the massacre into the wider context of the recent spate of police shootings of unarmed black men.

“If you kill nine black people in a church, you will at least make it safely to your bond hearing,” he said. “But if you want to die or face the real prospects of dying, here’s how you do it: Be suspected of stealing a cigarette while black. … Pick up a toy gun in a Wal-Mart while black. Play your music too loud while black. Runaway from the cops while black.”

The Rev. Kenneth Alexander, co-pastor of Antioch Baptist Church North, addressed similar themes in his messages. He said it’s instructive that dark-skinned men who kill are quickly branded terrorists while white ones are described as mentally ill.

But the evil being perpetuated against the church goes beyond racism, Alexander said.

“They can’t argue with God,” he said. “They can’t shoot God so they attack us.”

Racism, according to Warnock, pervades “because it denies its own existence.

“Someone taught that boy how to hate,” Warnock said.

The Rev. David Lewicki, co-pastor of North Decatur Presbyterian Church, told his mostly white congregation the shootings are not just about “one suffering individual … It is the fruit of white supremacy.”

He urged congregants to confront their own racism.

“It gets more violent the more it is resisted,” Lewicki said.

The Rev. Jeffery Ott, priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, dedicated a portion of his homily to the lack of gun control in America.

“Our leaders, no matter how friendly and wonderful the gun lobbyists are, need to do something, anything, to get some kind of control over guns in this country,” Ott said. He added that any such measures would “only be a piece” of the solution in preventing tragedies like Charleston.

At McDonough’s Eagles Landing Baptist Church, Senior Pastor Tim Dowdy decried the continued use of race-based descriptions.

“Until you and I stop using all adjectives to describe people — black man, white woman, Asian girl, Hispanic boy and just (say) woman, man, girl, boy, things will still happen,” he told his ethically diverse congregation.

Bishop James Morton of Decatur’s New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church urged worshippers not to allow the shootings to further divide the races.

“We can’t allow anything to set up hatred in us because that could have easily been a black boy,” Morton said.

Senior Minister Sam Matthews of Marietta’s First United Methodist Church said Wednesday’s meetings served as a harsh reminder that, “There’s a hard, evil world out there.”

The church is in the midst of an extensive infrastructure update that includes a major security upgrade.

“We’ll do what we need to do to protect your children and you while you’re here,” Matthews said.

But he warned against turning the church into a bunker and said parishioners should not start packing heat in the sanctuary.

“The church’s agenda is not toward armaments,” Matthews said. “The church’s agenda is toward peace, toward converting the world and convincing the world.

Though recent events are “wearisome to the soul,” said Warnock, “We will not be defined by the darkness. The doors of the church are open.”

Ebenezer’s service concluded with a rousing rendition of the gospel song, “I’ve Got a Feeling (Everything’s Gonna Be Alright)”:

“The sun’s gonna shine in my life, whenever it rains

Don’t have to worry about the trouble life can bring

It’s gonna be alright.”