By Tyler Clifford
BUFFALO, N.Y. (Reuters) -Nearly a week after an avowed white supremist killed 10 Black people at a western New York supermarket, friends and family of Heyward Patterson gathered on Friday to mourn a "God-given" man who was considered family to many in the Buffalo neighborhood where he lived and died helping others.
The private memorial service for Patterson, a community deacon, was the first funeral for one of the people killed in Saturday's attack. It took place at Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, less than a mile from the Tops Friendly Markets store where 13 people - 11 of them Black - were shot Saturday by the gunman firing a semi-automatic, assault-style rifle.
While the service was closed to the media, people gathered outside to hug, mourn and celebrate the life of Patterson, 67, who many described as a man who would give the shirt off his back to another.
Michelle Johnstone, 44, said she considered him an uncle figure, calling him a "God-given person." She recalled how the deacon would take her to the altar of the church, rub oil on her forehead, hold her hands tight and uplift her in prayer whenever she asked for just three minutes of his time.
"They always want to take the good ones," she told Reuters outside the church. "That deacon, it’s just something about that prayer."
Donald Vinson, 64, a cousin, recalled playing football and going swimming with Patterson, whom he credited for keeping him out of trouble.
Patterson, whom many called Deke or Deacon, was a constant presence at Tops, the lone supermarket in the majority-Black community on the east side of Buffalo, according to Yvonda King, a 55-year-old hair stylist.
A kindly, affable man, according to those who knew him, Patterson would provide rides to elderly shoppers - "jitneying" in the local parlance - with his car.
"He was there every day, helping the elderly get around, or anyone who needs to get around as far as jitneying," King said.
Patterson, the eldest of seven, was born in South Carolina and moved to Buffalo with his family at a young age. He was a husband, a father to three and several grandchildren, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing his wife Tirzah Patterson.
At a Thursday news conference, Tirzah Patterson said she was recently separated from her husband, though they continued to raise their 12-year-old son.
"I need a village to help me raise and be here for my son, because he has no father," she said.
Heyward Patterson served as a deacon at State Tabernacle Church of God in Christ nearby the Tops store. He volunteered at the church's soup kitchen, according to the Times.
Services for some of the other victims are set for next week, while others have yet to be arranged.
Last weekend's rampage, which authorities said the gunman had carefully planned with an eye toward killing as many Black people as he could, has touched a nerve in a country that has grown accustomed to mass shootings.
The case that has spurred national soul-searching over how the internet facilitates to the spread of racist hate and how easy access to firearms enables those who embrace racist ideology to carry out acts of mass violence.
Erie County prosecutors have charged 18-year-old Payton Gendron with a single count of first-degree murder in the massacre. He faces life in prison without parole if convicted on the murder charge.
The FBI has said the shooting is under investigation as a hate crime and an act of "racially motivated violent extremism."
(Reporting by Tyler Clifford; Editing by Frank McGurty and Aurora Ellis)