The Rev. John Cager began to field calls late Wednesday night, hours after a 21-year-old gunman killed nine people at a historic black church in South Carolina.
His parishioners at Ward AME Church in South L.A. sounded shocked and shaken. They wanted to know: Will there still be a church service on Sunday?
“Of course there will be church,” Cager told them. “There will be church now, more than ever.”
On Thursday, Cager and other African Methodist Episcopal leaders expressed outrage and sorrow over the killings at Emanuel AME Church, one of the most respected black congregations in the South. They questioned whether Dylann Storm Roof's actions were part of a grander scheme to terrorize what many consider the soul of the black community: the churches.
“Everybody is numb, in disbelief,” Cager said. “Those horrible experiences that some of our pastors and bishops witnessed back in the 1950s we didn't expect to see again. And yet, here we are, in 2015.”
The church leaders had gathered at Ward AME for their regular monthly ministerial meeting, but the agenda was overtaken by the news of the shooting.
They took turns praying for strength for their communities and for the families of the victims in Charleston.
“Oh God, we pray that our commitment will not weaken, but grow stronger,” said Bishop C. Garnett Henning, his head bowed. “We pray that our church leaders will lead us through this veil of shadows.”
Outside the church, located just a few blocks from USC, two police officers stood on guard.
L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck dropped in to offer condolences and answer pastors' questions. He had no details about the intentions behind the shooting, but said patrols would be on special alert around AME churches across L.A. in coming days. “The LAPD will stand with you to ensure houses of worship are safe,” he said. “We will take all necessary measures to make sure this kind of attack does not repeat itself.”
His words only mildly eased the trepidation. Over the decades, ministers at Ward and other black churches have dealt with occasional acts of hate and racism from outsiders.
“There's been too many to keep count,” Cager said.
Just a few miles away at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black church in L.A., several skinheads were convicted in the 1990s for plotting to blow up the building to trigger a race war.
That parish held a prayer vigil Thursday to honor the victims of the mass shooting in Charleston. Among the dead was the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Emanuel's 41-year-old pastor who was also a state senator.
Many AME leaders in L.A. had worked with Pinckney and admired the progress he had made within the church and in the South Carolina Legislature. They grieved his loss.
“This young, energetic pastor,” Bishop T. Larry Kirkland told the group, “one of the finest pastors in the African Methodist Episcopal Church is gone....Gone.”
At the vigil at First AME on Thursday evening, more than 250 people filled the pews as leaders from different faiths joined to pray with the church's pastor, the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd.
Meeting the watery eyes of the congregation, Boyd recounted the names of each victim in the shooting and gave a brief biography. But the pastor refrained from mentioning the suspected gunman's name.
“We will not repeat the name … because that would give him honor,” Boyd said.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti denounced the church killings as an attack on the American character.
“God said thou shall not kill and that law was violated last night,” Garcetti said at the service. “But the church cannot be destroyed.”
Many wrestled with the impact of the shooting, highlighting the need for gun control. Some, including Shaar Solari, said they feared the slayings would further strain the country's fraught race relations. “Church is so sacred to African Americans. And this white guy comes in wanting prayer,” Solari said. “What does this do for the bridge of trust between black and white people?”
Between the rhetoric, the crowd joined in song, belting out such gospels as “I Need You to Survive.” Many among the pews held hands, others hugged.
In the bright lights of the sanctuary, their tears glowed.