The killing of nine African American churchgoers by a white gunman in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday has sent shock waves across the nation, and many people, including those at Palo Alto's University African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, are calling for a discussion on race and acceptance, Rev. Kaloma Smith said.
On Thursday evening church members gathered at the Middlefield Road church to pray, mourn and try to make sense out of the senseless act of violence.
Many in the 76-member congregation, which consists of mostly older African Americans who came from the South, remember the church burnings, bombings and murders that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement. That such hatred and violence has not ended but has escalated in recent years has opened new, deep wounds and invoked a new sense of fear, Smith said.
"It's a psychic shock," he said.
People begin to question a lot of things when a place that is considered a safe haven is attacked, he said.
The Thursday evening prayer vigil included members of the San Francisco Peninsula chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, the country's largest African American sorority of college-educated women. One of the women killed in Charleston was a member of the sorority, Smith said.
"It was a cathartic moment," he said of the vigil.
The deadly shootings in Charleston represent an increase in violence against African Americans that has been greater in the past four years than in the last 20 years, Smith said.
While the church is considering ways to improve its own security with cameras and other technology, Smith said University AME remains steadfast in its commitment to acceptance.
"We can't get into the rhetoric of fear-mongering and retaliation," Smith said. "No matter what happens tomorrow, we are open to all."
According to a June 18 article in The Atlantic, African American congregations have had a long history of being persecuted. In the decades before the Civil War, black churches were outlawed in many states.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the site of Wednesday's massacre, was forced to operate underground in 1834 after all black churches in the city were outlawed, according to the church's history.
Smith said Palo Alto's University AME Zion congregation feels some apprehension because it isn't located in a traditionally black neighborhood. And in the light of such violent intolerance, people are wondering what implications that has for their church, Smith said.
"Striking at the church, the heart of African American community life, is about more than just an attack at a church: At its core, it is an attack against people," he said.
Smith said older members of the congregation are tired of seeing African Americans die as innocent shooting victims.
"The younger members are (also) frustrated," he said.
Referencing police shootings of unarmed African Americans, he said, "The shootings in the church are a natural extension of that behavior."
When people see there are no consequences for shootings, they think they can get away with doing more of it, Smith said.
But what happened in Charleston will not deter the church, Smith said. The church and its congregation will not match the rhetoric of hate, he added.
Smith hopes people of all faiths, races and ethnicity will come out to discuss the issues facing the U.S. related to race and issues that also exist in Palo Alto and come together to find solutions.
A community discussion will take place on July 6 at 6 p.m., at 3549 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Information is available from Pastor Smith at 914-374-4255 or pastor@universityAMEZ.com.
To view a video of the prayer vigil, visit the Weekly's YouTube channel.