The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary hosted an interfaith memorial service on June 23 for the Charleston shooting victims, or “The Charleston Nine” as they have come to be known.
The event was organized by the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), and the interfaith spirit was obvious during a service that drew on elements from the Torah, the New Testament and the Quran. Choirs from both Temple Sinai and the Rodman Street Baptist Church sang hymns. Rabbis, reverends, pastors and an imam spoke to the nearly 300 people in attendance of the importance of faith as a means of coping with tragedy, while stressing the importance of unity being the catalyst needed for change, which they hope will be kickstarted by this event.
In addition to speeches and hymns, a candle was lit for each of the victims, who were killed on June 17, when 21-year-old Dylann Roof pulled a gun out during an evening Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and began shooting. With this in mind, the Pittsburgh memorial service asked the attendees “to reject violence: the hateful violence of white supremacy … that claims lives barely begun.”
Organizing an event like this on short notice was not easy, said Temple Sinai’s Senior Rabbi Jamie Gibson. “To get all the players, all the people who had interest in it, to participate and to agree was quite a task, and I’m so glad we succeeded.” Rev. John Welch, president emeritus of PIIN and vice president for student service and dean of students at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said that “many of us spent a week in Detroit looking at race and power” and just days after they returned home, the shooting in Charleston took place. “We thought,” said Rev. Welch, “it was necessary for us to come together in solidarity and to address racism, to speak to it and to put things into action to eradicate it. If there was any organization to do this, it was us” as PIIN encompasses all religions.
Rev. Liddy Barlow, the executive minister of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, who helped organize the service and wrote the liturgy, said that she felt “relief that I wasn’t alone in the feelings I was feeling — that there was this whole roomful of people who were willing to commit to do more and to do it together.”
Imam Ab’du Semih Tadese, executive director of the Islamic University Center, who read an excerpt from the Quran at the service, said that “for every one of us, coming together in this time of tragedy is something that must continue. As human beings we have to stop to realize the gain and the feelings of prosperity that we all seek in this land, are not just for one race or for one faith group, but for all of us. And that’s what we must work to pursue, so tomorrow can be a better day.”
Nisha Stillworth, a Pittburgh local who attended the service, said, “I felt like there was a lot of oneness and a lot of unity. Just not even focusing on our differences, but focusing on what we can do to make a better world. I felt like it was very genuine, very free, very spiritual. Nothing was forced — everyone got a word in, everyone respected each other.”
One of the speakers at the event, Rev. Darryl Canady of Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church said that “it’s important for us to move beyond talk and rhetoric, to doing something.” In that spirit, every attendee received a note card at the start of the service, upon which they were supposed to write “one concrete, realistic step you will take to end racism in yourself, your neighborhood, our city or our nation,” according to the program. Toward the end of the service, Barlow and Welch asked the assembled to turn to their neighbors and share what they had written. A loud hubbub ensued.
To cap off the evening, with Gibson on guitar and both choirs singing, audience members wrapped their arms around each other and swayed, singing a hymn adapted from the Psalms: “those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” After exiting the service, the final words of Freeman, hung in the air: “Nine more people have died in Charleston, South Carolina. If I may channel the words of an old Negro spiritual, ‘let not their living be in vain.’”
Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.