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Pridgen says he’s ‘hypersensitive’ in wake of deaths

When Bishop Darius Pridgen of True Bethel Baptist Church and the Rev. Richard Stenhouse of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal heard about the church shooting in South Carolina, they were stunned at the malevolence of the crime.

“It is a horrifying thing, especially someone you know, in the sanctity of church in a Bible study, and you have evil showing up while someone is preaching God’s word,” Stenhouse said.

There is much in common between Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where the rampage took place, and Bethel AME on Michigan Avenue.

Bethel is Buffalo’s oldest black church. Emanuel is the oldest A.M.E. church in the South.

And Emanuel’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, had something in common with Pridgen beyond the call to preach the Gospel. They both had a calling for civic duty – Pinckney as a state senator, Pridgen as president of the Buffalo Common Council.

“My heart goes out to the family members, especially to the church community in South Carolina,” Pridgen said.

Pridgen said he was “hypersensitive” to the incident in South Carolina because Pinckney was also both a minister and an elected official. And by virtue of wearing the two hats, Pridgen has received his share of death threats and stalkers. People have come into the church with knives. Often the people involved in the incidents described by Pridgen are people who have sat in the church pews, he said. Most recently, Pridgen was harassed for days by someone who thought he brought Al Sharpton to a town hall meeting last week at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

“Which is not true,” Pridgen said. “Here was a person who continued to harass me about an issue I had nothing to do with.

“Until we know whether the man shot the people because of politics or religion, this definitely is something I’m following very closely,” he said.

Stenhouse, who had known Pinckney casually for more than a decade through church activities, was horrified and angry at the same time when he heard what happened at the Charleston church. Pinckney and Stenhouse would run into each other at various church meetings and events across the country and engage in “small talk” and discussions about things confronting the church or legislation before the church, Stenhouse said.

“To think that a colleague, a person I knew, could be at church and someone come in and sit there for over an hour and at the end murder him,” Stenhouse said.

Charleston’s Emanuel AME is one of the country’s most storied black churches. It was founded in 1816 because of racial discord when African-American members left the Methodist Episcopal Church because they felt they were discriminated against. In 1822, one of the church’s founders was implicated in an alleged slave revolt plot. In addition, civil rights leaders had spoken there, including Booker T. Washington in 1909 and Martin Luther King in 1962 with other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to urge church members to register and vote.

Emanuel is among 13 churches that had shootings within the past decade, an indication that the Christian community is not exempt from violence in this country, said the Rev. Michael Chapman of St. John Baptist Church on Goodell Street.

“We’re all connected, and this is heartfelt to all Christian communities because it could happen to anyone,” he said.

Angela Stewart, who has held pastoral responsibilities for the past five years at Metropolitan United Methodist Church on Best Street, pointed out that it’s commonplace for black churches to hold Bible study classes on Wednesdays, including hers.

“We had Bible study last night, and the same thing could have happened to us,” Stewart said. “As a church we would have welcomed the young man with open arms to worship with us. So my heart was heavy when I heard about it.”

Michael Badger, pastor of Bethesda World Harvest International Church on Main Street, also reflected on the massacre.

“It’s tragic when we think about the fact (that) in houses of worship people can come in and commit violence in a place that represents peace,” Badger said. “Between school houses and houses of prayer, everyone should be safe.”

A meeting with Stenhouse and other local pastors will be held Friday evening at Bethel AME, said the Rev. James A. Lewis III, director of pastoral care at Erie County Medical Center, which operates the AIDS Center/Immunodeficiency Services.

“We’re going to come together and pray,” Lewis said. “And look at our situation and see what we can do to assist them in South Carolina.”

News Staff Reporter Emma Sapong contributed to this report email: