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Churches across LI, NYC pray for Charleston community after massacre at Emanuel AME Church

Congregation members at the Perfecting Faith Church in

Congregation members at the Perfecting Faith Church in Freeport on Sunday, June 21, 2015, listen as their pastor reflects on recent events in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

Christian communities across Long Island and New York City joined in prayer Sunday for the Charleston, South Carolina, community wounded by violence and racism in a shooting that killed nine worshippers last week.

The Rev. Lisa Williamson called on the congregation at Port Washington's Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church to reignite its legacy of social justice.

Williamson led Bible study Wednesday night -- the same night as the Charleston attack -- even after hearing news of the deadly shootings at the historic Emanuel AME Church.

"We kept our doors open, just like our brothers and sisters in Charleston," she said before the service. "But they never left their church because evil came in."

Mount Olive had 10 candles and 10 portraits sitting in front of the altar yesterday morning: the nine faces of the Charleston victims and their alleged killer.

One by one, their names were read, and Williamson prayed they would have the courage to fight for social justice: battling racism, addressing mental health issues and advocating for gun control.

"I'm tired of our brothers and sisters being shot down," she said.

Priscilla Curtis, 56, of Port Washington, grew up in Charleston, and said before the service that last week's events shocked her to her core.

"The thing that bothers me the most is when you go into the house of worship, you don't expect to be wounded, shot and riddled with bullets," she said.

The tragic shooting was on the minds of many in New York City's churches during their services, and preachers, congregants and other community members said they would use their faith to help the community and nation move forward. Church members dedicated their prayers, songs and thoughts to the nine victims and others impacted in Charleston.

"We're sending the message through our grapevine of prayers that we are here for them," said the Rev. Herbert Daughtry Sr., pastor of The House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn.

Finding solace in church

At the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, hundreds of congregants arrived to celebrate the morning services with a heavy heart.

Rod Gardener of Harlem came with his wife and daughter. He said he ran out of adjectives to describe his shock over the violence, but wanted to find solace with his church members.

"It's just about having compassion for humanity," he said of Sunday's service.

The Rev. Calvin Butts III, Abyssinian's pastor, praised slain South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME, for his work with the community, and the relatives of the victims who forgave the suspected gunman.

"When you forgive, you shake the tethers that bind you and keep you from working for justice," Butts said. "They did the right thing."

Police in Charleston say the man charged in the killings, Dylann Roof, 21, spewed racial epithets as he shot his victims. Charged with nine counts of murder, he is being held on $1 million bail.

Butts also thanked the leaders from other religious institutions, such as Temple Emanu-El -- a synagogue on 65th Street -- for their support.

Marlene Yokel, a member of the temple, came to the service to show that New Yorkers of all faiths stand by Charleston.

"I feel fortunate to be able to be in this congregation -- is a privilege," she said.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito attended services at St. Albans Congregational Church and asserted the need to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol in South Carolina.

"That flag, which symbolizes slavery, oppression and hate, needs to come down once and for all -- period," she said.

Long Island 'wake-up call'

On Long Island, Christians said the shooting was a reminder of their own role in combating intolerance.

"It behooves us now to get on our knees and start spending more time in prayer," said Deborah Edlow, 64, of Massapequa, after a service at Upper Room Christian World Center in Dix Hills. "It's a wake-up call."

Pastor Nicholas D'Onofrio called on worshippers at the racially diverse Upper Room to fight racism and other prejudice by creating bonds with people different from themselves.

"They say one of the most segregated days of the week in America is Sunday, but I said to myself, 'They haven't come to Upper Room,' " D'Onofrio said. "Because here there's black and white and Hispanic and Asian, and we thank God that we can worship our God together."

In Freeport, dozens of churchgoers at Perfecting Faith Church attended its weekly 6 a.m. prayer service, which was dedicated to the nine people killed and those who mourned them.

"Despite chaos, we praise you," Pastor Donnie McClurkin said. "Despite atrocity, we praise you."

Senior Pastor Charles Coverdale, 72, of the First Baptist Church of Riverhead, focused his service on rejoicing in the lives of those who had been lost and on forgiveness.

"I didn't say it's easy," Coverdale said. "But, I believe forgiving is required. . . . You owe it to yourself to forgive so you can get on with a meaningful life and not carry hate."

Martha Mayo, 78, an usher at First Baptist, said that despite the shootings, churches don't need more security.

"African-Americans come to a place of worship for comfort, for peace," Mayo said. " . . . My problem is there's too many guns in the world."

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