06/23/2015 04:40 EDT | Updated 06/23/2016 05:59 EDT

Church in Halifax to hold prayer vigil to mourn massacre in Charleston

HALIFAX - A predominantly black congregation in a small Halifax church will reaffirm its strong ties with the United States later this week when a prayer vigil is held to mourn the June 17 massacre of nine black people inside a South Carolina church.

Rev. Rhonda Britton, pastor at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, is calling on the members of 20 churches within Nova Scotia's African United Baptist Association to gather in Halifax for the Friday vigil.

"We have been devastated with the news of what happened in Charleston and we are grieving with that community," says Britton.

"For us, this is really a heartbreaking situation that strikes deep."

She says there is a particularly strong sense of kinship between Nova Scotia's black population and their African-American neighbours. Most African Nova Scotians can trace their ancestry to those who fled slavery south of the border.

About 30,000 slaves escaped to freedom through a network of secret routes known as the Underground Railroad in the 1800s, many of them settling in Halifax, Shelburne, Digby and Guysborough.

Before the Underground Railroad, Nova Scotia saw an influx of black Loyalists, former slaves who fought for the British during the American Revolution. More than 3,500 were sent to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, most of them settling in Birchtown, N.S.

"We still have ties with the United States," says Britton, who noted Cornwallis Street Baptist Church was founded 183 years ago by Rev. Richard Preston, a freed slave who came to Nova Scotia from Virginia.

To this day, many of those among Nova Scotia's black population have relatives in Virginia and North Carolina, says Britton, who is originally from Florida.

The killings inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, which authorities have described as a racial hate crime, took place during a midweek Bible study class. Among the slain was Emanuel's senior pastor, state senator Clementa Pinckney.

His funeral will be held Friday in Charleston, where U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to deliver the eulogy.

Britton says she typically leads the weekly Bible study meeting at her church, where people of all faiths and races are welcome.

"It's just devastating," she says. "It feels like such a huge violation. I don't know if violation is a strong enough word. It's a desecration of the holy space ... I can imagine how it happened."

Britton says she hopes the prayer vigil will succeed in "waking people up to the fact that racism is still a problem, that this hatred still exists and that we need to do all that we can ... to be positive influences in the world."

Note to readers: The is a corrected story. An earlier version reported the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is in North Carolina.