The Africa University Choir felt moved to comfort and encourage South Carolina United Methodists in the wake of the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
The 16-person student choir was in its final week of a South Carolina Conference tour when the tragedy occurred on June 17.
“At first I didn't believe it,” said Julian Kanombirira. “It felt so unreal. After a while, it began to sink in that it had actually happened. Then I began to see that racism actually does exist. I had read about it, I watched it in movies, but I had never once considered that it actually did exist. I was devastated.”
Though shocked to the core, the choir members say that they knew instinctively what needed to be done.
“No one really sat down to say we should respond in a certain way, but it came naturally,” said 25-year-old Kanombirira, an accounting major and sophomore. “We all knew we had a task of comforting the whole of South Carolina. . . . We had all become ambassadors of peace and love. The people had to feel that in our music.”
Their concert on June 19, the day after the shootings, was at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Taylors, South Carolina, where the Rev. Telley Lynnette Gadson is the senior pastor. Gadson is from Hollywood, a town in Charleston County. Her cousin, the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, was one of nine killed at Emanuel AMC.
“We decided that we would engage in a time of vigil, prayer, and encouragement and the choir contributed to that with consoling songs,” said Gadson. A key selection from the choir was the song, “From a Distance.”
“We dedicated the song in respect of the tragedy because we believe that even with what happened, God is still watching us from a distance," said Pambi Jatutu Yusuf. The 23-year-old Nigerian choir member is studying psychology at Africa University.
“Pastor T (Gadson) and many in the congregation commented on the healing and peace they felt after our ministration,” she said.
“What it did for us was to signify how closely connected we are,” said Gadson. “We are separated by water but not by love. The challenge of acceptance of diversity is not restricted by geography.”
South Carolina United Methodist Church leaders acknowledge that strong and long-standing ties exist between South Carolina and Africa University. South Carolina United Methodists have invested in the university from its inception—providing gifts for scholarships, buildings, and day-to-day operations. And for the students in the choir, that history of support and solidarity made the opportunity to share their love and foster hope quite a privilege.
“I wished they would have a glimpse into my heart so that they would see the fire of hope burning in me because of their support,” Kanombirira said.
In the days that followed, the choir worshipped with congregations and performed in Columbia, Leesville, Summerville, and North Charleston. The choir left South Carolina on June 22, but choir members back on campus and in their home communities said they continue to pray for the church and South Carolina.
Betty Void, Columbia District lay leader, said the choir exemplified a sense of connection beyond location, nationality, race, or language.
“The music the choir presented to us—when they sang `Amazing Grace,’ it gave me chills—it was so uplifting,” Void said. “They brought a sense of unity to the churches here in the Columbia District. They represented unity for us.”
“The AU Choir came to us at a unique moment in South Carolina,” said the Rev. Robert Howell, senior pastor of the largest United Methodist congregation in South Carolina—Bethany United Methodist Church in Summerville.
“Your (students) blessed us beyond measure,” said Howell. “Emotionally, we are still somewhere between grief and hope. We have lost great leaders and great Christians.”
Eight congregations in the North Charleston area gathered at Cokesbury United Methodist Church on June 21 for the choir’s final performance. South Carolina Bishop L. Jonathan Holston attended and affirmed the choir for its ministry.
“The choir’s presence in the Palmetto State will always be remembered,” said Holston. “The AU Choir shared its ministry of song to a broken and hurting community with the love of Christ. We are grateful for their presence in a time of hope and reconciliation.”
Stevens is director of communications and creative services for the Africa University Development Office. News media contact: Vicki Brown, news editor, [email protected] or 615-742-5469.