Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old suspect in the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., is in custody.
After he allegedly killed nine people Wednesday night at a prayer service, he did what cowards do. He ran.
Some have expressed shock that people would be gunned down in God’s house. But it’s not all that unusual, really. It happens, and it’s been happening with alarming frequency since 1999.
That year marks the beginning of a wave of violence on faith-based properties, said church security specialist Jimmy Meeks.
Since then, he said, more than 550 people have died violent deaths at churches, temples, mosques and synagogues in this country.
“Just as many people are dying at churches as they are at public schools,” he said.
Atlanta, this city too busy to hate, isn’t immune. In October 2012, a Riverdale man was charged with murder in the shooting death of his supervisor during a prayer meeting at the World Changers Church International.
For as long as I can remember, churches have been America’s safe haven. For African-Americans, it was historically a place of refuge from the cruel conditions of Jim Crow, a kind of Sunday fueling station to drink in hope for a week’s worth of wrong actions, both committed and endured.
You can indeed find hope in church, but you aren’t guaranteed safety, says Meeks, a police officer in Hurst, Texas, and a minister who travels the country presenting seminars on church security.
People are angry, he said.
“In my law enforcement career, I’ve never seen so many angry people. I see them on duty. I see them off duty,” he said. “When anger is not resolved, it escalates and turns into rage and hate.”
And houses of worship are not excluded.
“A wolf driven by hate can kill sheep like we saw last night,” Meeks said.
Of all the things I read about Wednesday night’s shooting, the words the gunman reportedly uttered were the most searing: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
The Rev. Artis Johnson, who is on sabbatical working on issues of social justice and economic empowerment with churches in North Fulton, called Roof’s actions “purposeful, intentional and a clear act of terrorism.”
I can’t disagree with him.
The shooting happened, ironically, on the 193rd anniversary of the thwarted slave revolt that was planned by one of the church’s founders, Denmark Vesey. Emanuel is one of the nation’s oldest black churches in a city that was the epicenter of the slave trade that so many in our nation seek to ignore or blanch from their consciousness.
“While this act of immeasurable violence and terror was done with a gun, it is my belief that as a nation, our focus has to be one of total intolerance of any words, laws, action, policing, governance that perpetuates groups, mentality, politics of hatred,” Johnson said.
Those of us who are silent, he said, help load the bullets in the chambers of men who kill for the purposes of hatred.
The Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina have opened a hate crime investigation into the shooting, which left six women and three men dead, including the church’s pastor.
In Fort Worth, where I worked as a reporter, eight were killed, including the gunman, who killed himself in 1999 at Wedgwood Baptist Church.
The Rev. Al Meredith, the church’s pastor, was spared.
“I was able to minister to my people and do their funerals,” he said. “Emanuel has lost their pastor. That makes this particularly tragic. The Bible says strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.”
Meredith, who has reached out to the congregation, said both the church and the community need the nation’s prayers so they can bond together to prevent more racial violence.
“We have an enemy and the enemy is pulling out all the stops,” Meredith said. “Jesus said the end time will come when the hearts of many shall wax cold and violence will be on the increase.”
That violence lays now at our churches’ doors.
ABOUT THE COLUMNIST
Gracie Bonds Staples is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples was recently promoted to Senior Features Enterprise Writer. Look for her columns Thursdays and Saturdays in Living and alternating Sundays in Metro.