More than 100 staffers and members of Congress gathered on the East Front of the Capitol shortly after noon Thursday to bow their heads in prayer for the victims of the shooting in Charleston, S.C.
A gunman opened fire during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Wednesday night, killing nine, including the pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Shortly before the vigil, news broke that police in North Carolina had apprehended the suspected gunman: 21 year-old Dylann Roof. The shooting shocked the nation and the staffers and lawmakers from the region were visibly shaken as they gathered Thursday. “Our hearts ache for the families of the victims. Our hearts ache for the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina. Our hearts ache for our nation,” Senate Chaplain Barry Black told the crowd gathered in a semi-circle on the grass. “And we pray and ask that God would somehow use us to end the insanity of violence that we see.”
The vigil was organized by the office of Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., in conjunction with the South Carolina delegation. Scott’s Chief of Staff Jennifer DeCasper sent a message to the delegation about the vigil, and passed it along to her friends on the Hill. “God took it from there,” she said after the vigil.
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Otis Gordon, a pastor from Life Changers International Ministry in North Charleston, also addressed the group, and said afterward he was in town for Scott’s Wednesday prayer breakfast. “I wasn’t expecting it but, being a pastor, you’ve got to make room for whatever happens,” he said of offering a prayer in front of the Capitol.
Scott and other members of the South Carolina delegation were in Charleston already. But roughly a dozen members of the House and Senate were on hand at the vigil, including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.; Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.
The crowd also heard from one lawmaker: Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. DeCasper, her voice shaking, called on Lankford to speak. Lankford served as a youth pastor and previously ran one of the largest Baptist youth camps in the country before coming to Congress.
“Scripture says God is near to the broken-hearted. And that would match South Carolina and all of us here today,” Lankford said before his prayer, eliciting murmurs of agreement from the crowd.
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Lankford asked God to help the families of the vicitms, the pastors, the community and state leaders as they move forward from the tragedy. In addition to fathoming the event, members of the state government mourned one of their own. A black cloth was draped over the desk of Pinckney, a Democrat, at the South Carolina Capitol.
“God heal us as a nation,” Lankford said. “We need your help.”
After Lankford’s prayer, the crowd prayed “Our Father” in unison. When the vigil concluded, some hung back, embracing each other. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., walked up to DeCasper after the vigil, cupped her face in his hands and wiped away her tears.