Benton Township church holds vigil for Charleston shooting victims

Beulah Wade, 70, of Benton Harbor holds a candle Thursday at the Union Memorial AME Church in Benton Township during a vigil for victims of the AME church shooting in South Carolina. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Beulah Wade, 70, of Benton Harbor holds a candle Thursday at the Union Memorial AME Church in Benton Township during a vigil for victims of the AME church shooting in South Carolina. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP – The shock of a mass killing in a South Carolina church is reaching Southwest Michigan.

The news prompted a prayer vigil Thursday afternoon at Union Memorial AME Church in Benton Township.

“I’ve been praying all day as most of us have been,” said the Rev. Minnie Autry, pastor of Union Memorial at 911 S. Crystal Ave. “It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around. At such a time like this, we have to seek comfort from the lord. Anytime there is tragedy such as this, we try to come together in prayer.”

A gunman opened fire and killed nine people Wednesday night during a prayer service at a historic black church in downtown Charleston. The alleged gunman, identified as Dylann Roof, 21, was arrested Thursday in North Carolina at a traffic stop. He is believed to be the only shooter.

Autry helped organize the vigil for the victims and their families.

The shooting took place at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston at about 9 p.m. It is considered the deadliest mass shooting in the United States since 12 people were killed inside the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013.

Autry said she had first heard about the shooting Wednesday night, but at that time there was no word on if anyone had died.

“It sounds to me like it really was a hate crime,” Autry said. “It has been a very sad day. I’m praying for this young man who has so much hatred to walk into a place of worship and commit such acts of violence.”

More than two dozen people from various churches came together to pray and sing hymns at Union Memorial AME.

Emery Varrie, a pastor for Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Benton Harbor, was present and spoke in support of the families for their loss, and against the egregious actions of the gunman.

“This will have a rippling effect,” he said. “Those nine people have had an effect on hundreds. This is a 21-year-old, it was a learned behavior. You have to learn to hate people. My concern is where and when did he learn this?”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@thehp.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on June 19, 2015)

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