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Sunday Church Services Remember Victims Of Georgia Spa Killings

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People around the Atlanta area held vigils over the weekend. It was a way to remember eight people killed in last week's shootings. Some churches also spent Sunday services in remembrance of the victims, six of whom were women of Asian descent. And the remembrances came in the suspected gunman's own church. Here's Emil Moffatt of our member station WABE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) You're still my God.

EMIL MOFFATT, BYLINE: In a spacious sanctuary in the Atlanta suburbs, members of Crabapple First Baptist Church sat socially distanced, wearing masks and singing. The largely white congregation prayed for the families of both victims and the suspect in last week's shooting. As they gathered, one of their own members was sitting in jail, facing eight counts of murder in connection with the shootings. Associate Pastor Luke Folsom acknowledged it was hard to fathom the suspect came from their midst.

LUKE FOLSOM: We don't have answers. We don't know why this happened. Lord, we feel alone and broken. But, God, we know that you are there.

MOFFATT: The accused gunman, who is 21 years old, told police that he was addicted to sex and carried out the shootings, in his words, to eliminate temptation. In a statement last week, the church rejected that justification. It said the suspect's actions are, quote, "antithetical to everything we believe and teach as a church" and that he alone is responsible for his evil actions and desires. After the sermon, members voted to kick the suspect out of the church, saying they can, quote, "no longer affirm that he's truly a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ."

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

MOFFATT: About 30 miles away, several Asian American church congregations gathered for a vigil outside of Gold Spa in Atlanta. It's one of the three businesses the gunman targeted. In front of the building, flower bouquets and handwritten tributes honor the victims. Byeong Cheol Han is a senior pastor at Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. He says a person's inability to control his sexual desires does not justify harming another person, let alone taking their life.

BYEONG CHEOL HAN: As a human being, we all have been tempted every day. But we should not kill people to eliminate temptation.

MOFFATT: He says the focus should be on the violence and anti-Asian rhetoric that have been on the rise across the country since the start of the pandemic.

BYEONG: I want this incident to be a awakening moment not only for Asian Americans but also for all Americans to end this kind of discrimination.

MOFFATT: Pastor Cheol Han's gathering was one of many vigils and protests across the country over the weekend for the victims of last week's shootings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Stop Asian hate.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Love Asian people.

MOFFATT: Hundreds of people flocked to a rally at the Georgia state capitol in downtown Atlanta on Saturday. Cathy Regun grew emotional as she said anti-Asian sentiment is growing.

CATHY REGUN: What happened in the past week is really, I think, a tipping point, where a white guy killed eight people. So I think we really need to stand up together and then show our voice.

MOFFATT: The speakers at the rally included newly elected U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Many called for the suspect to be charged under Georgia's new hate crime law in addition to murder. Prosecutors say they haven't ruled it out. For NPR News, I'm Emil Moffatt in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.