They stood, joined hands and sang loudly “we shall overcome,” filling the church with the sound.
The congregation of New Life in Christ Church in O’Fallon sang this anthem of the African-American Civil Rights Movement during a Sunday service in which they prayed for the nine victims of the Charleston church shooting.
Bishop Geoffrey Dudley told the congregation a “life-changer,” as he calls them, from their community was feeling the impact of the shooting. Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor was among those who died at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and her aunt is a member of New Life in Christ Church.
“We have to stand with her ... and we have to stand against hate,” Dudley said during the service. “No matter who’s doing the hating, God’s doing the loving.”
Sherry Rivers, of O’Fallon, said hearing the news of the deaths in South Carolina was all too familiar.
“It just reminded me of something I’ve already lived through. I remember a lot about the ’60s and to be back there again is...there are no words to describe it,” she said. “That was just heartbreaking for me to know that, (in) 2015, we’re still talking about some of the same issues we thought we had dealt with.”
A young woman from O’Fallon, Sherry McDonald, said “it’s not just a story in a book anymore for me,” referring to the history of civil rights.
“It’s reality,” she said. “It’s very sad in the 21st century that the color of a person’s skin provokes so much passion; at the end of the day, it’s passion whether it’s anger or it’s love.”
Love is what Dudley, Rivers and McDonald each said would be necessary to move on from the tragedy.
“It’s very important that we do something with the emotion that we feel,” Dudley said in an interview. “First, be filled with the love to overcome the hate.”
Dudley also suggests people “direct your emotion to action” by getting involved and volunteering.
Rivers said she is able to work through it because the families of the victims set an example.
“If those people were able to forgive, surely, surely, whatever anger I felt in the moment, I can get beyond that and know that my God still reigns,” Rivers said. “That’s why we’re still here and still standing.”
Sherry Cook, of Belleville, said a member of her best friend’s family was killed in the shooting.
“The world is big but it’s small at the same time, and what affects one person, affects us all in one way or another,” she said.
Cook said the shooting is especially troubling because it took place in a church.
“It’s like your second home,” Cook said. “As a whole, the church is not defeated. We walk in victory, and we will continue to grow, and we will continue to do what God calls us to do, which is love one another as he loves us.”
Dudley, too, was saddened because he said the members of Mother Emanuel AME were acting according to scripture.
“Scripturely, it says entertain strangers because you may entertain an angel unaware. And for them to be carrying this out, inviting him in and he’s an angel of darkness instead of an angel of light, that’s unbelievable,” he said. “That’s the thing that I think touches me more than anything else.”
New Life in Christ Church has security procedures in place, Dundley said, but he isn’t typically thinking about his safety.
“It’s not a feeling that I get in touch with when I come to church,” he said. “Whether I feel safe or not is not even something that I think about, but now I’m having to think about it.”
“What pastor wants to go and look at his congregation or her congregation and wonder, ‘Is somebody out here going to do me harm?’”
He said members of New Life in Christ Church will focus on reconciliation and avoid prejudice.
“You can’t take what he (shooting suspect Dylann Roof) did and do like peanut butter and spread it over every white American,” he said. “You can’t do that. ‘Everybody’s out to get us’: I think that’s wasted energy.”
Dudley said he would like his congregation to be an extension of Mother Emanuel AME Church, which held its first service since the shooting today.
“We really hope to change lives through the love that we show in this moment where there’s a great deal of hate,” he said.