Portland Vigil Furthers Race Conversation After Charleston Shooting
Hymns softly drifted through somber air in the vestibule of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Northeast Portland on Thursday night. A pianist played along to the quiet shuffle of hundreds of mourners taking their seats.
The Bethel A.M.E. Church held a candlelight vigil to honor the nine victims of Wednesday's shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It was an event particularly felt at Bethel.
"The is a connectional church, so this church is a part of their church as well," said Rev. George William Whitfield, a pastor at First A.M.E. Zion Church in Portland. "The pastor and the members knew the pastor that was killed there and other members there ... we're intertwined with each other."
Whitfield emphasized that the hatred that lead to the attack in Charelston is not something new to the African American community. He said even though churches and other places of worship have traditionally been considered sanctuaries from violence, attacks like these have been occurring for as long as the church existed.
"This is not the first time that someone has come into the church. Especially in the African American community, we are used to things happening like this," Whitfield said. "But it just boggles my mind that someone would come and do this type of act in a worship center, that people would do this period, that someone would take another life."
Hundreds of mourners attended Thursday to share prayers, sing songs and light a candle in remembrance. Despite the gravity of the situation, there was a certain air of optimism and perseverance that penetrated the smoke and tears.
"We really need to sit down and talk about how we can help race relations," Whitfield said. "People are trying to say that a lot of things that happen are not racially motivated. If we really sit down and we really talk on both sides of the table with no one getting upset, we can talk about how to move this country in the right direction."
The crowd was a mix of ethnicities and religions. Faith leaders from around Portland representing Judaism, Islam and various Christian faiths were sitting in the front rows in solidarity with the A.M.E church, holding hands and singing hymns of love and peace.
"We're here to gather different people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds," Whitfield said. "Coming together and praying, not only for Charleston, but all over the world where there is violence."
Activists also came to show their support. Red Hamilton, president of the Black Student Union at Portland Community College Cascade, heard about the vigil early in the day and felt compelled to show support.
"We just finished a Stop the Hate training for us to talk about hate crimes and bias incidents," Hamilton said. "And for this to happen right after that kind of broke my heart. I felt like I should come and show support."
Hamilton was emphatic that the shooting in Charleston was a suspected racially-motivated hate crime. The attack has reignited a storm of questions about racial tensions and inequality in the United States.
Hamilton believes that mainstream media has been reluctant to label this attack as a hate crime because of the jarring implications of that designation.
"I feel like people get a little more riled up with it being called a hate crime," Hamilton said. "But the media kind of perpetuate different things for different people. It's a sad thing, but it happens."
The outpouring of support shown at the Bethel A.M.E. brought hope into the hearts of both Hamilton and Whitfield. Hamilton is planning a peace rally with the Black Student Union at PCC, and Whitfield was quick to remind attendees about the summer lecture series Race Talks, which encourages discussions of racial equity in a frank and open manner.
Whitfield also echoed a resounding regret that it was always tragedy that brought so many diverse people from so many diverse backgrounds together, instead of something more positive.
But he also said he believes moments like this can be used to teach and prevent more tragedy.
Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting