CHURCH IS supposed to be a place of peaceful refuge.
Anyone who's been to an AME church knows what warm and welcoming places these sanctuaries are. The times I've been, even if I was there just to report on something, some kind soul always reaches over to share a Bible or songbook.
I wasn't in Charleston, S.C., Wednesday night, but I suspect that churchgoers at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were equally gracious to Dylann Storm Roof, 21, when he walked into their meeting and asked for the pastor.
"Their church is very similar to Mother Bethel . . . nine people in Bible study is about what we have," the Rev. Mark Tyler, senior pastor at Philly's Mother Bethel AME Church, told me yesterday.
"In a congregation like that in these kinds of neighborhoods, it's not unusual to have a young white person come into the congregation and sit through the Bible study. I know black churches well enough to know that as they closed out, they prayed for him."
Roof reportedly sat in their midst - right next to the minister - for about an hour. Attendees reportedly tried unsuccessfully to get him to join their discussion. Instead, after about an hour, Roof announced that he had come to kill black people and pulled out a gun, fatally wounding nine African-American worshippers, including the church's pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a state senator. A witness said Roof reloaded five times.
Hell has to have a special place for the kind of evil that shoots up a Bible-study class.
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., wrote, "It's an obvious hate crime by someone who feels threatened by our country's changing demographics and the increasing prominence of African-Americans in public life."
Cohen added that "the presence of an African-American in the White House" has helped fuel these fears.
A Facebook photo shows Roof - who's now in custody - wearing a jacket with patches of flags from formerly racist regimes in southern Africa. And then there were the words he allegedly spoke in the midst of the rampage. "I have to do it," Roof was quoted as saying. "You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."
There it is again: That age-old fear of black male sexuality. And how about the notion that a largely disenfranchised people who make up only 14 percent of the U.S. population somehow have taken over from the white majority?
Who taught this kid this tired "Birth of a Nation" racist garbage?
His uncle told reporters that Roof's gun was a 21st birthday present from his father. My Second Amendment-boosting friends like to say: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." But our lax gun-control laws make these kinds of bloodbaths so much easier.
"At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this kind of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries," President Obama said yesterday from the White House. "It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. It is in our power to do something about it."
Watching the news reports yesterday transported me back to the 1960s. Back then, I was too young to understand the enormity of what happened when four Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls as they changed into their choir robes. Years later I listened to grown folks reminiscing in hushed tones about that scary time.
Now a gunman with hate in his heart has brought all that back, front and center, by opening fire on the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore, a church where parishioners once met in secret to avoid the ire of white townspeople.
In Philly yesterday, Mother Bethel's Tyler sent his parishioners an email that said his church would be reviewing "our security protocol" as a result of the South Carolina massacre.
Armed security guards? Metal detectors? I sure hope it doesn't come to that.
On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong