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Unity service lays down a challenge
Pearl Brown: Decide in our hearts that we're going to do better
W Unity 2
One of the more than 250 people who attended the unity service is shown in deep prayer. - photo by JIM HEALY/staff

Click here to watch extended video of Sunday's unity service.

Inside a church most of us had never been before. Among people most of us had never seen before. Gathered together because of a horror none of us thought possible in our nation in 2015. Pearl Brown looked at the crowd split evenly between black and white faces and found the common ground for all of us.

"Tonight is indeed a sight I have never seen before in my life," said Brown, director of the NAACP for Bulloch County. "And for that, I say, 'God, we thank you.' It is past time that we have come together with a common need and cause in our heart. And today I see that. And for that, I say, 'God we thank you.' "

Carried on by a chorus of "Amen" and "Praise God," Brown continued.

"I want us not to let this time and this spirit that we feel here today to be lost in a week or so. I want us to remember that all of us have worth and that all of us are children of the same God."

And, finally, she challenged us.

"And if we can leave here today having made up in our hearts, not just our minds but in our hearts that I'm going to do better. I'm going to treat everybody the way I want to be treated, that I want God to be pleased with my walk."

Brown was one of 10 speakers Sunday night inside the Original First African Baptist Church on Westside Road. And for me, as one of more than 250 who packed the small sanctuary, she was the soul of what it will take to truly begin a discussion of understanding how it's possible for a man to be so filled with racial hatred he would murder nine people during Bible study inside a church.

When Brown looked out from the pulpit into the First African pews for that one night, she saw a true diversity that doesn't exist at any congregation at any church in Bulloch County. And probably few in the United States.

We were, no doubt, there as part of our own mourning process for the nine Charleston victims and their families. We were there because we want to do something to help our fellow citizens, and so we sent out our prayers.

But there was more. There remains an ugliness we as Americans must confront and battle all the time.

Bill Bagwell, pastor of Pittman Park United Methodist Church, was not afraid to bring out the sin.

"There is racism that is part of our community. The prejudice that is filled, so filled, with the intent to do harm does not in any way have the image of God in Christ upon it. And Lord we need your help to come before you as your children. Yet we confess to you that we are so lost. We are overwhelmed by the violence of these events and the brokenness of the world. Help us Lord! Help us! Help us to think differently. Help us to act differently. Especially Lord, we pray for those within our midst of whom we may not yet be aware in whom hatred flourishes."

Tears were streaming from Bagwell's eyes when he finished and from many of us, too, because we knew what he said was true.

Who knew what unfathomable hatred flourished inside Dylann Roof?

Did we do something to nurture the kind of evil that grew inside him?

It's easy to mark Roof up as a supremely rare exception in the extremism of his actions. He certainly is that.

But why can't we take up Pearl Brown's challenge to do better in our hearts? To take the feeling of community we were all part of Sunday night in a small church in Statesboro and make it last more than a few fleeting moments.

I, for one, hope I have the courage to try a little harder.


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