9 lives lost in Charleston shooting celebrated with song, cheer

The vigil program. (Sinclair Broadcast Group/Lindsey Leake)

If you didn't know better, you might have mistaken the Friday evening vigil held in downtown Charleston for the nine people gunned down at a Bible study 48 hours earlier for a graduation ceremony.

The scene at the College of Charleston's TD Arena was hardly somber. Roses lay on folding chairs lined in neat rows, which were filled by mourners of an array of ages, races and faiths. A quick scan of the venue revealed more smiles than tears, more laughs than sobs, decidedly joyous song and bouts of raucous applause.

As the crowd joined together to sing "Amazing Grace," "The Lord is My Light," and "We'll Understand it Better By and By" in between remarks from clergy, the arena echoed with the sounds of a Sunday church service. As one of the speakers put it, "we've turned a sports arena into a sacred space."

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. acknowledged the tragic loss of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Rev. Sharonda Singleton and Myra Thompson.

"We all have one thing in common: our hearts are broken," he said. "In a church, a perfect sanctuary, the ultimate place of peace and refuge, eight people and their marvelous minister in prayers, studying the Bible, a hateful, deranged young man took their lives. That has broken our hearts."

But Mayor Riley's remarks largely echoed sentiments of determination and healing, bringing the cheering audience to its feet on more than one occasion.

"In our broken hearts, we've realized we love each other more. Our differences of color and religion are not divisive, rather they all add to the richness of life's experiences," he said. "Diversity is not a weakness, it's a wonderful strength."

Mayor Riley added that alleged shooter Dylann Roof, 21, "miserably failed" at his apparent attempt to divide the City of Charleston and the country as a whole. The mayor also lauded the efforts of local police and the FBI to quickly apprehend Roof, who is currently facing nine murder charges and being held at the Sherriff Al Cannon Detention Center in Charleston.

A number of other elected officials, including Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Senator Tim Scott, R-S.C., were in attendance.

The program drew to a close with what Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III of Charity Missionary Baptist Church called an old song with new meaning: "We Shall Overcome." As people in the stands linked hands, swayed in time with the music, and offered words of love and friendship, they left determined to overcome, indeed.

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