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Buffalo’s religious leaders see hope for common ground in South Carolina massacre

Police say that the tragedy at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., was a hate crime committed by a young man who wanted to start a race war.

Buffalo religious leaders say the one good thing to come from the massacre is that it could have the exact opposite effect: drawing together people of various races, ethnicities and faiths.

In fact, it is already happening.

Images in the aftermath of the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church show black and white people consoling, mourning and praying together.

And the same scene has extended to Buffalo.

“The diversity of people I have seen sympathizing with the victims and victims’ families in South Carolina, I have also seen in Buffalo,” said Bishop Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry Street.

History has proven that in times like these, Americans of all races and faiths put aside differences to heal and to process. Church services this weekend will provide an opportunity for people to do just that, local religious leaders say.

Julie Algubani, executive director of WNYMuslims, said, “Anytime something bad happens is an opportunity for people to come together, but I think it’s unfortunate that bad things have to happen for everyone to come together.”

“I thought about it this morning, that all backgrounds should be against any of these kinds of acts on people coming together to pray whether they are Christian, Jewish or Muslim,” said the Rev. Robert M. Yetter, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in East Amherst.

There have been dozens of shootings over the years in places of worship across the country.

“How many times have we heard this story that someone used a gun to kill a bunch of people, and there’s never a good reason for that – ever,” said Adam Scheldt, assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Zion on Delaware Avenue.

“It’s sad that gun violence has become normal in the United States. It’s utterly ridiculous we’ve grown to a place that we are not shocked that someone has used a firearm to inflict pain and death,” he added.

On Thursday night, Pridgen, who is also president of the Buffalo Common Council, attended a prayer service at Bethel A.M.E. Church on Michigan Avenue, led by Bethel’s pastor, the Rev. Richard Stenhouse. About 150 people attended, but it was the makeup of the crowd that made an impression on Pridgen.

“It was 50/50 black and white,” he said. “So that was a start ... It was a sign of unity that may not have been seen on a Thursday in an inner-city church in Buffalo had it not been for this tragedy.”

The church massacre in South Carolina has left many Americans with more questions than answers, said the Rev. Mary Masters, senior minister at Unity Church on Delaware Avenue. And many of them will flock to their places of worship to process what happened.

“How could a loving God let a church shooting happen?” Masters said rhetorically.

“This reminds me of how important it is to have churches, synagogues, temples to ask the deeper questions about how did this happen, to ask ourselves how do we choose to respond, how are we going to use this to move forward. That’s what needs to be focused on,” she said.

Masters said she was particularly moved by some public remarks made by Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley on Friday. He vowed his city and its residents would overcome the racial hatred that spawned the horrific incident at Emanuel.

“He said, ‘We’re gonna love our way out of this,’ ” Masters recalled. “It brings tears to my eyes thinking of it, but that’s what we have to do.”