Two days before a racially motivated church massacre in Charleston, S.C., the Rev. Joseph Baker met with leaders of St. James AME Church in Columbus to discuss beefing up security.
There was no imminent threat, the church's pastor said Friday. He just wanted to be proactive.
Baker was stunned as news unfolded about a shooter walking into a Wednesday night Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, eventually killing nine people.
One of the victims, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a member of the South Carolina state Legislature, was someone Baker knew personally while they both lived in Bluffton, S.C. He and his wife are also friends with people acquainted with another victim.
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"It is a sad day for us, not just throughout the (African Methodist Episcopal) church, but also throughout the community of faith," Baker said Friday. "At one time, those persons who saw the church, respected the church. But in this day and time, we have some in society that seemingly disregard respect for the church as well as respect for human life."
Baker is among many people in Columbus mourning the death of the nine people killed in a tragedy that has riveted the nation. Dylann Storm Roof, 21, a white male, was charged Friday with nine counts of murder and one count of criminal possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. Roof had complained while getting drunk on vodka recently that "blacks were taking over the world" and that "someone needed to do something about it for the white race," said Joey Meek, who tipped the FBI when he saw his friend on surveillance images. Witnesses said Roof said during the shooting; "You've raped our women, and you are taking over the country ... I have to do what I have to do."
The Justice Department announced Friday that it's investigating whether it could be a hate crime or domestic terrorism. Agency spokeswoman Emily Pierce said the slayings were "undoubtedly designed to strike fear and terror into this community."
On Thursday, hours after the shooting, a small group representing various faiths gathered at St. James for a vigil and to express condolences to Baker and his church members. Later that night, another vigil was held at St. John AME Church in Fort Mitchell, Ala.
On Friday, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held a prayer and candlelight vigil in front of its headquarters at 514 First Ave., which drew about 35 people. Speakers included Tonza Thomas, president of the local NAACP; Edward DuBose, a NAACP national board member; Reggie Williams, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance; the Rev. Curtis Crocker, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church; and the Rev. Richard Jessie, NAACP criminal justice chairman. Later, another rally was scheduled to be held at Word of Truth Ministries on Fort Benning Road.
At the NAACP vigil, the group lit candles for each person killed in the Wednesday night massacre. As the names of victims were called, individuals holding each candle made one last walk on their behalf, then placed all nine candles on the pavement in a straight line. Thomas and DuBose said they would be going to Charleston in solidarity with other NAACP officials once funeral arrangements are announced.
"We are paying our condolences to families and victims of the tragedy in South Carolina," said Thomas, pointing out the historical significance of the Emanuel AME Church, which houses the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore. "In 1909, in the formation of the NAACP, Booker T. Washington spoke at that church, and so because it was so relevant in that era during the civil rights movement, this is the new civil rights movement. We wanted to make sure that our fallen soldiers and martyrs in this work will not be forgotten."
Thomas and other NAACP leaders said Roof allegedly wanted to start a race war, but the NAACP is about peace, not hate. Dubose said the organization is responding in love, but it also wants to see some action when it comes to gun laws.
"How can a person go into a church Bible study and sit with (them) an hour and then kill the people?" he asked. "Well, we're familiar with that. Judas sat with Jesus and he was a killer. And how did Jesus handle that? Jesus said as they cast lots, as he laid on that cross, 'Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.'
"We're going to get through this with love, but we also want action," he said. "This is an opportunity for faith leaders all across Columbus to come together to embrace gun legislation. Like President Obama said, how many people have to die?"
Williams of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance said it's time for congregations to take security more seriously.
"As the shepherd of the church that I pastor, I am responsible for what goes on there and part of what I take responsibility for is the safety of those who come and worship where I serve," he said. "My encouragement to us is that we don't come to church afraid of what may happen to us, at the same time, we can't just pray and not go out and do what we need to do when we need to do something. We can't just pray and say, 'God protect us,' and not have security in our church."
He said later that he wasn't recommending that pastors carry weapons, but that they hire security.
In addition to those who attended vigils, some elected officials said they were also mourning.
State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said he knew Pinckney personally, and he was just a great person.
"Yesterday I just spent all day and last night thinking and trying to put my arms around the notion that someone would attend a prayer service and spend an hour with the parishioners and the worshipers and then kill them," he said. "It's just a tragedy.
"I'm deeply saddened by it and feel emotionally drained because we've got too much senseless violence," he added. "My thoughts now are really with the families and with the victims and we grieve with them."
State Sen. Ed Harbison added, "It was just horrific, another tragedy played out in a church in America. And I think that at some point we're going to have to make up our minds as a moral community about what kind of society that we're going to be. Whether we're going to immediately drift off into polarized camps of, 'Well, it's guns. Well, it's not guns it's people.' I think we're going to have to apply a good dose of common sense to this thing and have people understand that there are consequences to their actions."
Stacy Poydasheff, the wife of former Mayor Bob Poydasheff, is a native of Charleston. The family has about four generations of college graduates from Charleston, including their daughter and granddaughter. Poydasheff, a native New Yorker, is a graduate of the Citadel Military College of South Carolina, and so is his son.
The couple married in Charleston in 1954 and visits the city about three times a year.
Stacy Poydasheff said her brothers once owned a bottling plant on the street where Emanuel AME is located. And she's very familiar with the church.
"I just couldn't believe somebody would do something like that," she said of the shooting. "The first thing I told Bob, I said, 'My God, that means you can't even go to church and feel safe. You can't even go to school and feel safe or send your children there."
Bob Poydasheff said he called the mayor of Charleston to express his condolences. He said people of all races are saddened.
"We are outraged," he said. "Because this young man represents pure evil."
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.