Just days after the nightclub massacre in Orlando, Long Islanders gathered in a Mount Sinai church Friday night to remember the nine parishioners shot to death one year ago during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The memorial service at the Mount Sinai Congregational United Church of Christ was dedicated to the Charleston victims — killed June 17, 2015, in what federal prosecutors call a hate crime — and the 49 slaughtered at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on Sunday.
The service was co-sponsored by the 227-year-old Mount Sinai church and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Setauket. The 167-year-old Setauket church, established in October 1848, has members who are related to some of the nine people killed when shooter Dylann Roof opened fire in the Charleston church, event organizers said before the service.
The timing of the service, as the sun began to set, and the church bells pealed, created a somber mood for those who had lost relatives that night in Charleston and those who had come to honor them.
Willie White, 72, of Setauket, whose cousin, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, was slain by the Charleston shooter, told those who gathered in the small, white chapel that despite the tragedy, he was moved by the unity mourners showed for the victims — unity that he says is sorely needed today.
“We all belong to one Father and that’s the way it was on that particular day. Whether you were inside or whether you were outside, people were one,” he said.
White moved to New York from South Carolina in August 1957 when he was 14. As it happened, he was attending a funeral with his family when he learned of the shooting.
“Charleston was always a very nice place. . . . But I believe on that night, Charleston changed. People changed,” White said.
The commonality of the latest mass shootings and hate crimes in the United States with other horrific attacks on civilians around the world impelled Shahina Chandry, a Muslim from Port Jefferson, to speak of her brother.
He was one of 67 people killed during the September 2013 terrorist attacks at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
“I know exactly what the families are going through, may God be with them, may they be strong and may there be big, big changes in these countries and may we be part of those changes,” Chandry told those gathered.
Afterward, Chandry said she’d felt nervous about addressing the interfaith audience of several dozen individuals. But she said she was so filled with emotion that she was compelled to speak.
More gatherings like this one are needed to open dialogue between people of different backgrounds, she said.
After people shared their grief during the 90-minute service, the gathering sang “This Little Light of Mine” and then lined up to read the names of everyone who was killed in Orlando and Charleston. People listened in silence, some with tears in their eyes.
After the service, many of those who came seemed reluctant to leave, and individuals who might not normally encounter each other fell into conversation.
The importance of bringing people together, to heal and understand, inspired both the Mount Sinai and Bethel churches to unite for Friday’s service, said Tom Lyon, a Mount Sinai resident and a member of the Mount Sinai church.
Lyon, a longtime resident, said the church had not always found it easy, over the years, to deepen its ties to the rest of the community.
So he was pleased to see that the chance to assemble and reaffirm civilization and humanity in the wake of incomprehensible attacks had drawn people of various backgrounds and religions, including Muslims, atheists and Quakers.
“There are opportunities for us to come together.”
The Rev. Ronald Wood of the Mount Sinai church also spoke of the importance of connection.
“We have to build bridges between one another,” he told the group.
“Just your presence alone speaks volumes and I thank you for being here this evening,” Wood said.
Several of the attendees spoke of needed changes, alluding to tougher gun laws and more tolerance among people of different religious and racial backgrounds.
“Over the past nine years we can think of how many people’s lives we have taken with guns,” White said.
White added that people, especially parents, needed to stop being afraid of one another.
“We are the ones who have to set the tone for our kids to follow, because they will be the ones to follow in our footsteps,” White said.
With Joan Gralla