The air under the Harold Turpin Park shelter vibrated Thursday as words of prayer grew louder and louder.
Without the deep, resonant voice of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, known as the spiritual and political leader of Jasper County, S.C., his friends and loved ones were forced to find their own words of comfort, and speak them loudly enough to fill Pinckney’s void.
A group of about 30, including the Ridgeland pastor’s step-sister and several cousins, gathered in the park at noon to honor Pinckney, who was among nine people slain at his Charleston church, Emanuel AME.
Just an hour after the suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, was arrested, Pinckney’s mourners joined hands and let their murmurs and songs lift the words of Bobbie Ryan, a member of Kingdom Touch Ministries in Ridgeland. Members have been praying in the park weekly for several years, but organizer Ladenier Mitchell said the community’s pain called for a special meeting.
“We say enough is enough, God. Oh God, we stand in unity, God,” Ryan said. “We ask you right now, God, let every hand, God, let every mouth, God, let every tongue, God, speak words of comfort.”
The greatest shout came as Ryan rebuked the violence that had just shattered families in Charleston and Jasper County.
“The enemy cannot have our children, God. The enemy cannot, God, have their hearts, God,” he said. “In the name of God, we put the name of the enemy to flight.”
The group dispersed after the prayer, but people planned to gather there again Friday and continue meeting there daily, says pastor and Jasper County Sheriff Gregory Jenkins.
“There’s an epidemic in this country, and unfortunately, Jasper County is not exempt,” Jenkins said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something, and we believe that prayer is going to be the key.”
A cousin of Pinckney’s declined to give her name at the prayer circle and said the family is seeking privacy to mourn.
She and the pastor of Pinckney’s hometown church, Ridgeland’s St. John AME, said the senator’s wife, Jennifer, and two children, Eliana and Malana, were also at Emanuel at the time of the shooting, but were uninjured.
St. John’s pastor, Rev. Gregory Kinsey, said the family was in an office during the service.
“They’re fine,” the cousin said. “But to go to church with your dad and not be able to leave with them, that’s different. Out of someone being hateful ...”
‘THERE IS STILL HOPE’
Though some anger seeped into mourners’ prayers, most reactions across Beaufort and Jasper counties were tempered by a faith many said they had often admired in Pinckney.
The Ridgeland native began preaching as a teenager, and served as pastor of St. John AME in Ridgeland, Campbell Chapel AME in Bluffton and Jericho AME in Beaufort before joining Emanuel in 2010.
“He used to tell us at funerals, ‘You just have to remember they are now in God’s hands,’ and so we’re having to practice what he was preaching to us for all these years,” Jasper County Coroner Martin Sauls said. “We hate it, I can tell you. This whole county is in mourning.”
Lee Smalls of Campbell Chapel AME Church in Bluffton said he planned to travel to Charleston to join others honoring Pinckney. Smalls watched Pinckney grow up with his children, and he later served as a steward under the pastor.
“He was a fine man,” Smalls said. “It just bleeds my heart to think of what happened to him.”
Biner Lawyer-Green of Hampton County, who attended the Ridgeland prayer circle, said she was deeply saddened by the loss of Pinckney, who was her dean of ministerial training.
However, she said, she’s choosing to lean away from anger and fear.
“When we trust in God, we’ve got to realize God is in control,” said Lawyer-Green, of Mt. Zion AME Church in Garnett. “We’ve got to see what we can do as a church and a people to make things better.
“There still is hope.”
A SHARED SENSE OF LOSS
Those who worked closely with Pinckney outside of his ministry church shared their shock and condolences as well.
State and local officials remembered him for balancing a kind and gentle nature with a steadfast commitment to his constituents and his causes.
“He was an incredibly kind, intuitive and very thoughtful person,” state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said. “He had a unique way of empathizing with people and making them feel very comfortable with him from the beginning of any conversation.”
Thayer Rivers Jr., a Ridgeland lawyer who took over Pinckney’s seat in the state House of Representatives in 2001, said he was thinking Thursday of his friend’s loved ones.
“His family was very concerned and devoted to him and he reciprocated that,” Rivers said. “He loved his children dearly. He was a really good daddy.”
Pinckney’s cousin said the family plans to hold a vigil next week, but has not released arrangements.
Several churches across the area plan to hold prayer services for Pinckney on Friday.
Emotions were raw in the hours after the shooting spree.
Flags were lowered to half staff at several government buildings, including Ridgeland and Beaufort city halls.
Beaufort County administrator Gary Kubic said county offices were quiet and solemn.
“We’re stunned,” Kubic said. “He was a kind, calm individual who sought to help people, and that’s what I’m going to focus on today.”