The Record photo/ Jenna Carpenter   A picture of Dylann Roof, suspect in the Charleston shooting that left nine people dead, is displayed during a Friday night vigil for the victims at St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine. Rev. Rawls told those in attendance to forgive him.

The Record photo/ Jenna Carpenter

A picture of Dylann Roof, suspect in the Charleston shooting that left nine people dead, is displayed during a Friday night vigil for the victims at St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine. Rev. Rawls told those in attendance to forgive him.

St. Paul AME Church holds vigil for Emanuel

By Kimeko McCoy

The Rev. Ron Rawls poked at the sandwich on his plate before asking the Harry’s Seafood, Bar & Grille waiter to pack it to go.

The pastor of St. Paul AME Church was late to the commemorative reading of ‘Why We Went’ he was supposed to attend earlier that Thursday afternoon.

From his sullen demeanor, it was clear his mind was elsewhere.

Less than 24 hours before the reading, Rawls was leaving Bible study when he heard nine of the members at the historically black Emanuel AME Church, one of St. Paul’s sister churches, were fatally shot by a white gunman.

“When something like that happens, you’re automatically distressed,” Rawls said. “It’s like that was family right there.”

According to reports, the gunman visited the church and stayed for Bible study before opening fire on church members.

A vigil took place Friday at St. Paul AME on Martin Luther King Avenue in remembrance of those who died in what authorities are calling a hate crime.

Rawls wiped a towel across his brow as his voice broke in an attempt to name Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson and the Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Emanuel.

Although he did not know any of the victims of the Charleston shooting personally, it hurt all the same.

“If I had to die, that’s how I would want to die — doing what God called me to do,” Rawls said.

With tears in their eyes, a mostly white audience watched as pictures of each victim flashed on two big screens at the front of the church.

Carol Rovinsky and Elaine Herskovitz were some of the first to arrive and sat next to each other in the church pew.

When asked her reason for coming, Herskovitz simply said, “How could you not come?”

The two stood along with the rest of those in attendance singing spiritual songs like “Jesus Keep me Near the Cross” and “I Need You to Survive.”

“Despite what we are dealing with now, we have to admit down through the years, the Lord’s been good to us,” Rawls said.

St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver and St. Johns County Commission Chair Rachael Bennett sat with others behind Rawls on the church pulpit.

They kept their message short when they took to the mic.

“This is a horror that passes all understanding,” Shaver said. “I know there’s a love that passes all understanding.”

Bennett followed quoting the biblical passages, about loving the Lord and loving your neighbor.

“Lord, let there be peace on earth and let it begin with us,” she said.

Rawls said he’s human and was angry at first, but by the end of the vigil, God had healed his heart.

As the crowd finished with heavy hearts, the final picture on the project showed church massacre suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, with the word “living” above it.

“I believe Dylann heard something in that Bible study that night. It may not have sunk in that night but in days to come, he knows that (God) loves him,” Rawls said.

Before learning of the shooting, Rawls had planned to speak about Father’s Day for his sermon Sunday.

In wanting to bring St. Paul’s sister church to the forefront of his congregation’s mind, he wrestled with the idea of changing what he had already planned.

But in the spirit of St. Paul AME, sermons on Sunday morning reflect real life in real time.

“All of us can hopefully hear God because we’re no different here in St. Augustine,” Rawls said. “There’s still high racial tensions.”

Taken from The Record June 19, 2015