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The pews were full at First Baptist Church in the City of Williamsburg on Thursday night as more than 200 people gathered to remember the victims of last week’s shooting in Charleston, S.C.
The historic church located on Scotland Street held an interfaith service to pay tribute to nine people killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Twenty-one year old Dylann Roof is accused of entering the church during a bible study session and gunning down nine parishioners.
Ten minutes before the 7 p.m. service was set to begin, all of the church’s seats were taken. Arriving worshippers leaned against walls or stood in the back of the sanctuary.
Deacon Kim Jordan welcomed the assembled crowd, which included York County and Williamsburg-James City County school board members Barbara Haywood, Ruth Larson and Jim Nickols, as well as Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Mitchell Reiss, and urged those in attendance to “seek reconciliation, and not revenge.”
Rabbi David Katz of Williamsburg’s Temple Beth El synagogue read Psalm 23, which asks for divine guidance during times of strife.
The service continued for more than an hour, featuring prayers for the victims and their families, for the church and the state of South Carolina, for the United States, and for the accused shooter.
The prevailing theme throughout the service was one of turning an evil act into good.
“We need to see that there is no more white church, there is no more black church,” Rev. Richard Williams said in a prayer for Roof. “There is only one church.”
Rev. Juanita Graham delivered the evening’s sermon, focusing on the enduring legacy of racism in the country. Graham read Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the four victims of the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.
Graham made minor changes to update the message for the evening — a fact she emphasized.
“I only had to change a little, and that distresses me,” Graham said.
Substituting the nine Charleston victims for the Sixteenth Street four, Graham relayed King's message of redemption through suffering.
“Life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel,” Graham said, quoting King. “It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.”
First Baptist Church member Sue Wilson said the service was important to show unity in the face of hatred.
“We are in God’s house to show our solidarity, to grieve together, worship together,” Sue Wilson said. “This solidarity is a defining moment for us as a people.”