Charleston Shooting’s Unique Sorrow for Society Hill Congregation

Emanuel AME, where nine were murdered Wednesday, has its roots in Philly's Mother Bethel.
Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia (Photo by Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons)

Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia (Photo by Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a difficult day for Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler. Twenty-one-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, wanted for Wednesday’s murder of nine people inside Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, has just been captured, and Tyler, like most Americans, is grieving over the tragic shooting.

But for Tyler and his congregation at the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Society Hill, it runs deeper.

Philadelphian Richard Allen, for whom the Richard Allen Homes were named, founded the African Methodist Episcopal denomination in 1794 after he and other congregants at St. George’s in what is now known as Old City grew tired of the hostility they faced from white members of the congregation. Allen built Mother Bethel the same year. About 30 years later, a man named Morris Brown opened the doors of Emanuel in Charleston, and today it is the sister church of Bethel. Both churches’ founders are buried here at Bethel.

“There is a natural relationship between Charleston and Philadelphia,” says Reverend Tyler. “Freed slaves came from Charleston to Philadelphia in large numbers. And that pipeline has never been shut off. During the great migration in the early 1900s for industrial jobs, South Carolinians flooded Philadelphia, particularly South Philadelphia. And many members of the congregation here have family relationships that are still very strong in Charleston and low country South Carolina.”

Tyler explains that Brown didn’t know Allen personally at first, but he did hear about what Allen had done in Philadelphia. And Brown decided to join the AME church, leading its first expansion.

“They were responding to something like taxation without representation,” says Tyler. “People were paying money to the church but couldn’t get pastoral services or burial just because of the color of their skin. We needed our own church.”

I asked Tyler if it was safe to assume that his sermon this Sunday would focus on Charleston.

“I’m not preaching,” he says. “We have a guest preacher, the Reverend Doctor Renita Weems, a professor at Vanderbilt and one of the most renowned preachers in the country. She posted on Facebook last night, ‘I see now that I have to tear up that sermon. Lord help me.’ I’m just going through the motions right now. I need to hear somebody preach to me on Sunday.”

Tyler cautions that it’s too early to know exactly what happened on Wednesday and why.

“Right now, we don’t know enough,” he insists. “It’s been just hours. There’s a lot of conjecture. We know this gentleman was white. We know the victims are black. Police are calling it a hate crime, but we may never know. Of course, there may be enough here to reasonably suspect what happened. And it’s certainly not without precedent.”

With suspect Roof the most hated man in the United States right now, I wanted to know if God could forgive such a despicable act.

“God can forgive everything,” says Tyler. “That’s the God that I serve. Hate is a natural emotion in a time like this. People have a right to hold on to their anger for the moment. But hate can’t get us out of this, because hate is what got us here. Returning to hate only creates a vicious cycle. But for a person who truly repents and wants God’s forgiveness, yes, even someone as heinous as this, yes. But ‘can people forgive’ is another question.”

Below, Emanuel pastor Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the Charleston shooting, talks about Richard Allen and the history of his church.

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