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As black churches mourn Charleston shooting victims, questions about racism, gun policy raised

As the nation moved from shock to mourning the six women and three men killed by a white gunman at a black Charleston, S.C., church late Wednesday, chuchgoers gathered across the country Thursday to pray for the victims and for the 21-year-old man arrested for the shootings.

But they — along with leaders of other faiths as well as President Barack Obama — also began to process what the tragedy means for the safety of their parishioners and their communities.

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"I think pastors everywhere are going to be on high alert this Sunday and for the next couple of weeks," said the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, an African Methodist Episcopal Church, like the one the shooter targeted. "Everyone all over is trying to get some sense around the insanity that is taking place."

After spending the night glued to their televisions and cellphones as they sought to comprehend what had happened and to pray, Baltimore pastors said Thursday they were focused on mourning. They acknowledged, however, a need for discussions over safety.

"There are a number of policy issues, but right now we need to pray that we turn to each other and not on each other," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Baltimore's Bethel AME Church. "This is not just a black problem; this is not just a Christian problem; this is a national problem."

Speaking in the White House briefing room, Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, knew several members of the church, including the congregation's pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed Wednesday night.

Obama joined church leaders in expressing sorrow and anger over yet another mass shooting during his administration. By turns frustrated and mournful, he said it was "particularly heartbreaking" that the victims were gunned down in a place of worship, and decried the frequency of mass shootings in the United States.

"Now is a time for mourning and for healing, but let's be clear: At some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other countries," Obama warned. "I've had to make statements like this too many times."

He said the moment called for a re-examination of the nation's gun laws, noting that innocent people again were killed "because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no problems getting their hands on a gun."

On Wednesday evening, Baltimore pastor Donte Hickman and 1,000 other black faith leaders at an interdenominational convocation in South Carolina were listening to a sermon about safeguarding the Christian faith when they heard that a gunman had opened fire at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church about 15 miles away, killing nine people.

Fear swept the attendees as police escorted them from a North Charleston church to their vehicles, Hickman said.

Many local pastors said they had met Pinckney and other members of Emanuel through the tight-knit AME community. In addition to Pinckney, the victims were identified as Cynthia Hurd, 54; Tywanza Sanders, 26; the Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; and DePayne Doctor, 49.

The suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was captured without resistance Thursday after an all-night manhunt, Charleston's police Chief Greg Mullen said. A citizen spotted his car in Shelby, N.C., nearly four hours from Charleston.

Mullen wouldn't discuss a motive. U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said the Justice Department has begun a hate crime investigation.

Roof waived extradition from North Carolina and was taken wearing a bulletproof vest, with shackles on his feet and his hands cuffed behind his back, to a waiting police car. Roof also waived his right to counsel, meaning he apparently plans to represent himself or hire his own lawyer.

Joseph Meek Jr., a childhood friend of Roof's, identified him for the FBI after recognizing him in a surveillance camera image. He recognized the stained sweatshirt Roof wore while playing Xbox video games in Meek's home.

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In Baltimore, a group gathered Thursday night for a prayer vigil at Bethel AME. Another 200 people were expected to canvass West Baltimore neighborhoods that have been the scene of heightened violence since the death of Freddie Gray in April, urging peace, Bryant said. Gray died of severe spinal cord injuries suffered while in police custody.

Leaders of other faiths joined in the mourning. The Baltimore Jewish Council said it was "deeply saddened by the racially motivated shooting" and condemned it as a "violent and heinous act of discrimination."

Amid the mourning, questions were being raised about what the effects of the tragedy would be. Churchgoers were rattled by reports that the suspect sat in the back of a prayer meeting for an hour before opening fire.

Bryant, Reid and leaders of other churches said they already have security staff in place but might have to consider additional training and heightened alert. Pastors said they hoped the shooting wouldn't lead to more congregants arming themselves before attending services, nor would it make churches any less welcoming.

"Who do you not open the door to come in to pray or have Bible study?" asked the Rev. Ann Lightner-Fuller, pastor of Mount Calvary AME Church in Towson. "I hope this world doesn't have to come to that, I really do. I can't let that stop me from doing what we do and from loving people and inviting people in."

Hickman, whose church is rebuilding a senior apartments complex that burned amid rioting across the city April 27, said the shooting was a saddening reminder of racism in America.

Roof reportedly supported racial segregation and recently began making racist comments about the riots in Baltimore, Meek said.

"This guy's a kid from a generation that we thought was long gone," Hickman said. "It's just another picture of how far we have not come."

But he said churches should also recognize they will never be able to prevent all tragedies, as the shooting and the fire showed.

"Above all else, we have to practice a modicum of faith," he said. "You will never be able to protect yourself against every harm that can befall you. We should continue to live by faith and know that all things work together for the good, even tragedies like this."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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