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LI family with strong ties to South Carolina church 'devastated'

Portrait of Wardean Nichols Henry of Huntington Station

Portrait of Wardean Nichols Henry of Huntington Station on the evening of Thursday, June 18, 2015. Warden has family ties to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., where Wednesday night's mass shooting took place. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

A Huntington Station woman whose grandfather was a revered minister at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, said her extended family -- including relatives who live near there -- is "devastated" by the killings on Wednesday night.

For Wardean Nichols Henry, 84, the tragedy cut deeply, both from her present-day connections to the historic church and her family's significant legacy in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.

Her grandfather, the Rev. L. Ruffin Nichols, was the church's minister in the 1880s and 1890s, helping to rebuild it from earthquake damage in 1886, according to the church's history on its website. Her father, Bishop Decatur Ward Nichols, ultimately was pastor of Emanuel AME Church in Harlem. He died in Huntington Station at age 104 in 2005, the longest serving bishop ever in the African Methodist Episcopal church.

Henry remembers being in the Charleston church as a young child. The remains of her grandfather and grandmother are interred there, and her niece worships there now.

Thursday, Henry recalled several times in South Carolina that she had spoken with the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor who was slain, and described him as a "wonderful young man."

"He was a family friend," she said.

Her sister and her niece, who worked on Pinckney's campaign when he ran for the state Senate, attended a prayer service for mourners Thursday at Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, Henry said.

She expressed shock at the shootings. "You think in church, you're safe," she said.

Henry's sorrow was echoed by the Rev. Luonne Abram Rouse, 59, pastor of United Methodist Church Huntington-Cold Spring Harbor in Huntington.

Rouse, who grew up in South Carolina, said he plans to alter his Sunday sermon to address the mass shooting.

"In order to end this, we've got to focus against the hate and really be true to those elements of faith, hope and love," he said.

He plans to travel to South Carolina Sunday night to meet with other Methodist ministers and state Rep. Terry Alexander. They will discuss how to take the church in a "positive direction" while allowing for healing time, he said.

Rouse said he was part of the first cross-racial appointment in Methodism in South Carolina since Reconstruction. In 1991, he started a church in Horry County, South Carolina, that was meant to be racially inclusive.

There, he said he preached that the key to racial harmony is the love of God.

"I go back to South Carolina now, and they struggle to find those who are doing cross-racial appointments -- and that saddens my heart," he said.

Rouse, who began preaching in Harlem in 2003 and came to Long Island in 2010, said he was deeply saddened by the tragedy.

"We want the sadness to be a motivation to continue the work toward harmonious relationships between all people," he said.

The Rev. Phil Craig, president of the Queens chapter of the National Action Network, said the activist group is organizing a public prayer gathering for 5 p.m. Saturday in St. Albans Memorial Park in Queens.

"As a person of faith, I'm not going to live in fear. I'm not going to put a metal detector in my church," said Craig, who leads Greater Springfield Community Church in Queens. "I'm going to lean on the power of prayer."

Robert Chase, a history professor at Stony Brook University, noted that in some ways Long Island's composition -- with its many smaller communities -- resembles Charleston.

Chase, a scholar of post-World War II history, formerly was public historian of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston.

The history of slavery and racism isn't confined to the South or the past, Chase said, and the racially charged issues of gun violence and police brutality are very much relevant today in New York and across the country.

This is a time, he said, "for Long Islanders to think about how we can reach out and treat people who are different than us and find commonality."

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