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A white man walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Black churches in the nation, and opened fire Wednesday evening, leaving at least nine people dead.

According to a local NAACP official, the unknown gunman briefly sat in on the Bible study meeting before standing and opening fire on parishioners, shooting everyone in attendance except a woman and her granddaughter. The witness said the man let her live “so she could tell everyone else what happened.”

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called the shooting at Emanuel AME “a most unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy.”

“An evil and hateful person took the lives of citizens who had come to worship and pray together,” Riley said. “To walk into a church and shoot someone, is out of pure hatred.”

At press time, police have very few leads on the gunman. They describe him as a slender white man in his early 20s, wearing a gray sweatshirt, blue jeans, and Timberland boots. Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen called him “extremely dangerous.”

As news spread of the shooting, clergy and community members gathered to pray, many wondering how God could let such a tragedy happen. What wasn’t in question among those present Wednesday night, however, was the shooter’s motives.

“It’s obvious that it’s race,” Tory Fields, a member of the Charleston County Ministers Conference, said. “What else could it be? You’ve got a white guy going into an African-American church. That’s choice. He chose to go into that church and harm those people.”

Emanuel AME has longstanding roots in the Charleston community. Founded in 1816, it is the oldest AME church in the South and lists Denmark Vesey—a man who planned one of the largest slave rebellions in U.S. history—as one of its founders. Known as “Mother Emanuel,” the church has been a hub for social action and justice since its inception, making the attack even more troubling to those in the community.

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Rev. Pinckney; Photo: Emanuel AME

Among the victims was Emanuel AME’s pastor, South Carolina state Senator Clementa Pinckney. Pinckney, 41, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1996 when he was just 23, and the state Senate at 27. He was the youngest African American person to be elected to the State Legislature. Pinckney leaves behind his wife, Jennifer, and two daughters, Eliana and Malana.

Local law enforcement officials are asking community members for any information that will help them identify and capture the gunman. During a press conference, Charleston Police Chef Gregory Mullen told reporters the city may also issue a reward. Both the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting in the investigation.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley shared her condolences for the victims in a brief statement released via Facebook.

“Michael, Rena, Nalin and I are praying for the victims and families touched by tonight’s senseless tragedy at Emanuel AME Church,” Haley wrote. “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another. Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers.”

UPDATE: Police arrested Dylann Roof in Shelby, North Carolina for the Emanuel AME massacre.

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