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Staff photo by Doug Strickland Bettye Johnson, left, bows her head with others during a prayer vigil for the Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday, June 24, 2015, at the Wiley United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn. The vigil was held for victims of last week's shooting at the church in Charleston, South Carolina, which killed 9 people.

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Prayers for peace: Dozens gather at Chattanooga church to honor Charleston shooting victims

Lawanda Prater sat on an old wooden pew Wednesday night thinking about how similar her church is to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine people were gunned down in a prayer service last week.

"The windows and pews I see in pictures of that church where those people were shot remind me of here," she said as she sat with one arm on the edge of the pew. "They even have similar carvings on their pews like these here. I felt compelled to come and pray for them tonight."

Prater was one of more than 50 people gathered at the historic Bethlehem-Wiley United Methodist Church in downtown Chattanooga to remember the lives taken a week ago at Emanuel. Prayers for peace, comfort and racial reconciliation echoed from the high wooden ceilings of the sanctuary, as light from the setting sun softly streamed through the stained glass windows.

During the service, nine people walked to the front of the sanctuary and lit candles next to pictures of each victim of the shooting. They shared briefly about the victim and prayed as an old hymn with the chorus "it is well" played softly in the background.

Bethlehem-Wiley's Pastor Willie Kitchens reminded those gathered that this is not the first time the Christian church has been persecuted.

"As we have come together today, continue this fellowship," he urged those sitting in pews. "We know there is a better day to come."

The tone of the evening was not political. Instead, a crowd of mixed races sat together in union, praying that light would overcome darkness. That families would be comforted. And that peace and racial reconciliation would reclaim hurting communities.

Pastor Ken Sauer of East Ridge United Methodist Church told the crowd, "We are all familiar with the events that took place that night. We come here to pray over the nine families who lost these loved ones."

As the hour of prayer and remembrance came to an end, everyone sang "I Need You to Survive." Eyes were closed, hands raised and eyes filled with tears as the congregation ached for Emanuel's congregation just 400 miles away.

Barbara Kitchens, wife of pastor Willie Kitchens, said the night of prayer allowed those gathered to feel like they are doing something to help.

"We are keeping this community in the forefront of our minds," she said. "And I can't stop praying for the poor boy who shot other peoples' family."

Prater said last week's shooting was a reminder that there is both love and hate in the world.

"I think the strong hate that boy has in his heart is turning on him," she said. "There is so much love overcoming all his hate. Tonight is showing not everything is evil and here love wins."

Contact Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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