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Mourning Charleston: LTSP community joins the nation

(the original version of this article was published June 26, 2015)

The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) community continued in mourning with the nation as funerals were held for Pastor Clementa C. Pinckney and the eight other persons killed while engaged in Bible study and prayer June 17 at historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The community continues to ask and respond to the question: What can, and must, people of faith, and a community whose mission is to raise leaders in the world, do to address not only the deaths but also the underlying issues raised — again — by this act, an act that took the lives of people engaged in learning about God, singled out because they were African American — for the church, for the nation, for the world, for God’s creation.

Mother Bethel Prayer Vigil

Mother Bethel Prayer Vigil

Members of the LTSP and wider Philadelphia community were part of a Prayer Vigil held at Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia the day after the deaths. Among those at the Vigil was LTSP Professor Katie Day, who said “Mother Bethel was packed, a diverse gathering which was interracial, interfaith. There were Jews, Protestants, Catholics — leaders from every religion, including an Imam, helping lead the worship. She quoted Mother Bethel pastor, LTSP Urban Theological Institute Committee of Advisors (UTICA) member and friend of Pr. Pinckney the Rev. Mark Tyler, “So gratifying to see you, not everybody here is AME,” and, Day continued, saying “someone yelled out ‘We’re all AME tonight!’ and that became the theme for the night. It was such an amazing expression of solidarity especially since that service was taking place exactly 24 hours after the shooting at the Bible study when emotions were very raw and people were really trying to make sense of it all.”

LTSP Director of Admissions Matthew O’Rear, a classmate of Pr. Pinckney at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS), was also at the Vigil. “Many from the LTSP community gathered at Mother Bethel to pray, sing, and stand united with the hope of peace in our time,” he shared. “This was the work my classmate, Clem Pinckney, strived to carry out in his vocation, intentionally blending his elected office and his call to public ministry and striving to serve all of God’s people. My prayers are with all who mourn. Let us continue to work for justice and peace until it is a reality for all people.”

Also at the Vigil was the Rev. Jay Mitchell (MDiv 2014), pastor of Christ Ascension Lutheran Church, a diverse congregation in Northwest Philadelphia. “As a pastor in Philadelphia, there was no question — I would be at Mother Bethel, and encouraged my congregation to pray for and with Mother Bethel and the congregation that night. It was so important to me to join with my sisters and brothers from across Philadelphia, to lay our burdens on God and cling to the promises of love, compassion, hope, and wholeness that are ours. Mother Bethel provided a powerful witness in the midst of terror and tears. In the very first hymn we declared, ‘It is well with my soul.’ Though these acts of hatred, fear, and terror ​do not​ sit ‘well’ with our souls, together we can lay them on God.

That night, we were strengthened for the long journey ahead to face the terrible sins of our society and work for justice, mercy, and peace in our day.We may have declared at the start that ‘it is well with my soul,’ but we left declaring that ‘we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.’”

The Rev. Jocelyn K. Hart, UTICA member and Presiding Elder of the AME’s Philadelphia District, offered the opening prayer at the Mother Bethel Vigil. “Just before entering the service, I received a call from the mayor of Bensalem [PA],” she said. “His compassion and sympathy and support were very touching.Throughout the day I received calls, texts, and emails from family and friends offering prayers and love. It meant a lot to know that we were not in this alone and they felt our grief.

“The Prayer Vigil was the first time in a while that I entered a worship service feeling as broken, hurt, sorrowful, and confused as I was, and left feeling hopeful, resolved, and even renewed. For me, this showed the power of God at work and the power of community. I left encouraged that somehow what was meant for evil would be used for good.

“As I prayed, my heart was turned toward the ‘God of all comfort’ in 2 Corinthians. I thought for the lives that had been lost, families that were grieving, a congregation without a pastor. I thought of the Bishop of the District who could not be present in a way he would have wanted due to medical challenges. I thought of the Presiding Elder who now must become Pastor to this congregation while grieving himself. My heart was turned toward Dylann Roof and I prayed for his soul.”

LTSP Professor the Rev. Dr. John Hoffmeyer considered the place of theological education in the midst of a broken world: “It is foundational Christian teaching that the most deeply entrenched and widely assumed social divisions are overcome in Jesus Christ. That is what Paul means when he writes in Galatians 3:28 that there is ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Racism is not just a horrible social injustice. It is a fundamental offence against the action of God in Jesus Christ to create a world of reconciliation. The heart of Christian faith stands in utter contradiction to racism and requires its dismantling in every form.”

As Professor Day noted, “A toxic cocktail of racial hatred and easy availability of guns are things we are working very hard to address, to confront, to equip leaders to stand against at the seminary — in our curriculum and extra-curricular events and experiences.” She and LTSP faculty colleague the Rev. Dr. Karyn L. Wiseman are co-editing a book tentatively titled After the Smoke Clears: Preaching after Gun Violence as a resource for preaching the Gospel after such violence as came in Charleston.

LTSP’s president, the Rev. Dr. David J. Lose, emphasized, “The seminary is in a unique position to draw from many backgrounds to discuss how we can form faith communities working to make this world God loves so much a more just and trustworthy place for all. LTSP is committed to nurturing these kinds of vital connections about race and justice.”

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