Local clergy: Slain pastor was ‘a special man’

Published 12:02 am Friday, June 19, 2015

By Susan Shinn

For The Salisbury Post

Local clergy who were seminary classmates of a slain South Carolina pastor remembered him Thursday as a man who did it all.

“He was just a special man,” said the Rev. Mary Louise Sitton, pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Mount Ulla. “He was also very gracious and welcoming.”

Sitton is a 2005 graduate of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed Wednesday evening in Charleston, S.C., graduated from the seminary in 2008.

“He was a part-time student, so he was there over a longer period of time,” Sitton said Thursday afternoon. “That’s why there are so many of us who know him.”

“Everybody liked him,” said another classmate, the Rev. David Nuottila, pastor of Union Lutheran Church. “He always had a crowd of people around him. He was very approachable.”

Sitton has urged the seminary to set up a fund for her classmate’s family. Pinckney, the youngest black man ever elected to the South Carolina Legislature, was also a state senator. He and his wife had two young daughters.

“He had a family, he was involved in politics, he was a pastor,” Sitton said, “and he wanted to learn more. I remember just being so impressed when I found out all the other things he was doing, and he did them all well. I just can’t believe it.”

Pinckney was one of nine church members killed at Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street in Charleston, known as the Holy City for the many churches that are there. Pinckney served as pastor for that church, the oldest AME church in the South.

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke there, as did Maya Angelou, according to former Salisbury Post photographer Joey Benton, now living in Charleston with his wife and their two sons.

“We call it Mother Emanuel,” Benton said Thursday morning. “The church was started by slaves. It is certainly in the consciousness of any Charlestonian.”

Benton first heard about the shootings when he and his family were on their way home from a Charleston Battery professional soccer game.

“You can take the boy out of the newsroom, but you can’t take the newsroom out of the boy,” said Benton, now a registered nurse. “I know the area, and I was thinking about how I would cover the story.”

As the evening wore on, Benton soon realized the shooting was racially motivated, a hate crime.

“I said, please Jesus, let us calm down and take a breath,” Benton said.

He added, “I would love to say race relations are good here, but they’re not. We have two different communities. The role of the faith community is to bring these two groups together.”

Prayer services have already been held in Charleston, with both black and white Charlestonians participating.

Emanuel has a link to Hood Theological Seminary. Dr. Vergel Lattimore, its president, said Thursday that the AME denomination represents the seminary’s third largest enrollment numbers after its AME Zion and United Methodist students.

“As a pastoral counselor, I’m always saddened when violence is visited upon innocent persons, in this case, people who are in the family of faith,” Lattimore said Thursday afternoon. “This raises more questions than answers. We need to draw closer to each other as a family of faith, and reach out to those who are hurting.”

He added, “I would imagine that some of our AME students would know this pastor or this congregation, because it is the oldest AME congregation in the South.”

Although many denominations are represented at Hood, Lattimore is especially proud of the relationship between the AME Zion Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Hood Seminary and the North Carolina Lutheran Synod office are next-door neighbors in Salisbury. The two denominations entered into a covenant agreement in 2011, thought to be the first in the nation between a traditionally white denomination and a traditionally black denomination.

“Those are the bridges built for moments like this,” Lattimore said.

In the coming days, Lattimore, the seminaries in Salisbury and Columbia, the North Carolina Synod, and indeed the whole country will pray for the people of Charleston, as will Benton and his family.

“I think Charleston is the greatest city in the world,” Benton said. “That’s not what we’re about. I’m sick to my stomach. This whole thing just hurts my soul. This is a city that nine generations of my family have called home.”

On Wednesday, Benton received his license to practice nursing.

“This is my community,” he said. “I want to heal and care in Charleston.”


Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.