Tacoma Allen AME Church holds unity prayer service in wake of South Carolina tragedy

Like the nine people who lost their lives in the tragedy in South Carolina, the Rev. Anthony Steele of Tacoma had a Bible study scheduled this week.

Instead, he used that time Thursday night to open the doors of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church for a prayer service that crossed faith, race and hearts.

Leaders from about a dozen congregations took part in the service, which about 200 people attended.

If the aim of Wednesday’s violence against the Charleston congregation was to divide, that was overshadowed by unity during the gathering at the church’s Tacoma counterpart.

Steele told the crowd they were “standing together to say that we will never — and that’s a long time — put up with violence in the church house. And not just A.M.E, but any church house.”

The Rev. John Stroeh from the Tacoma Peace Lutheran Church told those gathered that a group of local congregations has been having conversations about race for several years, “and they’ve got to keep going.”

Other church leaders agreed such discussion was vital.

“There is not only a sleeping giant, there is a monster that’s called race, racial discrimination,” said the Rev. Eric Jackson of Tacoma’s Bethlehem Baptist Church. “We’ve got to talk about it.”

Support came from outside the religious community as well.

When Steele got to work Thursday he found flowers on the Hilltop church’s doorstep.

A bouquet out front during the evening service had a card that read: “Heartbreaking. Praying for you and all black churches. Praying for justice.” Signed: Hilltop Neighbors.

Well wishes left outside were “not from church folks, just people,” Steele said.

The service included a reading of the names of the nine fatally shot at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Three others were wounded. The suspected gunman was later arrested.

A uniformed Tacoma police officer sat in the back row of Thursday’s service.

“We all have work to do; we’ve got to keep doing this,” Steele said, gesturing at the crowd.

Dick Coulter, a member of the Tahoma Unitarian Universalist Congregation, said he attended the service in part because he remembered a 2008 shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville.

“I kind of feel an extra degree of sympathy,” he said. “I think (gathering) helps bring the community together and support one another.”

Allen A.M.E. members agreed.

“It was just such a tragic event,” said Greg Smith, an Allen member for about nine years. “Being church members, I think we have a feel for the families and church community and what they’re going through.”

His teenage daughter and son came with him to the service.

“As a connectional church, I feel like we should all stick together,” 17-year-old Amanda Smith said. “Since one member of our family was targeted, I think it’s necessary to get together and show our respect.”

“I guess you could say it’s our duty to show respect,” her 13-year-old brother Gregory Smith added.

Toward the end of the service, religious leaders from area congregations filled the stage, under the church’s banner, which reads: “Open for God’s business.”