By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - The city of Charleston came together on Friday for a memorial and other events to mark the first anniversary of the murders of nine members of a Bible study group in what prosecutors called a racially motivated hate crime.
The events were made even more poignant coming less than a week after a gunman slaughtered 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, marking the largest of many mass shootings in modern U.S. history.
A stage at Charleston's TD Arena was fronted by banner portraits of each of the nine victims from the rampage at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, including its slain minister and state Senator Clementa Pinckney.
Hymns were led by a 100-member choir and a minister prayed for the Charleston and Orlando victims, as well as for the soul of the accused church shooter, Dylann Roof.
Roof, 22, could face the death penalty on state murder charges and federal hate crime charges. Roof is white, while his victims were African-American and the federal indictment against him said he acted out of racism.
Wilhelmina Jones, 74, a retired hospital worker who helped out as an usher at Friday's service, said the massacre had united the local community. "When this tragedy happened to us last year, we came together as one," Jones said.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley showed the programs from nine funerals she has kept since last summer, and spoke about faith and each victim. She recalled how they welcomed Roof and prayed with him for an hour before they were killed.
"Tywanza Sanders stood in front of his 87-year-old aunt and looked the murderer in the eye and said, 'You don't have to do this. We mean you no harm,'" Haley told the congregation. "I will always talk about these people who changed my life."
As well as the memorial, events including Bible study sessions, a prayer breakfast, a "unity walk" and tree plantings will take place around Charleston. The church also will open its doors to religious leaders and elected officials from around the nation on Friday afternoon.
The church has had many visitors in the past year, Emanuel's new pastor, the Reverend Dr. Betty Deas Clark, told Reuters during a recent Bible study meeting in the room where the massacre took place.
"I believe we're moving forward ... Forgiveness is the message of the hour," Clark said.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Bill Trott and Bernard Orr)