Church Being Church — Reflections on Commemorating the Mother Emanuel Massacre
By The Rev. Dr. Katie Day, Charles A. Scheiren Professor, Church and Society; Director, Metropolitan/Urban Concentration
This past June, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia’s the Rev. Dr. Katie Day and the Rev. Dr. Storm Swain traveled to “Mother Emanuel” AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to attend events commemorating the Charleston Massacre, where nine people were shot and killed at Bible Study while praying — the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr. The following are Prof. Day’s reflections on the events marking the tragedy.
Walking through what seemed like a typical church fellowship room underneath the sanctuary, Prof. Swain and I knew we were walking on holy ground. It was in this space in “Mother” Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, exactly one year ago at this very hour that a disturbed young man unleashed his racist anger on the Bible study group that had welcomed this stranger in their midst. After sitting with the members for an hour, Dylann Roof opened fire when the group bowed their heads in prayer at 9:05 pm on June 17, 2015. Within seconds, nine people were killed, including the pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Miraculously, there were five survivors.
That night — June 17, 2016, just after 9:00 pm, the fellowship hall was a typical church gathering place and thoroughfare. There was regular traffic in and out of bathrooms, two offices, and around the neat white tables used for small group discussions and members sharing “repast” after services. Although there was a loving photo of the “Emanuel Nine” and a few other subtle tributes, this space did not feel like a morgue, nor was it a shrine. This was a place of life and faith and joy.
We had driven down for the weekend of commemorative events in the church and throughout the City of Charleston; two days out of twelve — remembering the victims, comforting grieving families, supporting the survivors, celebrating the presence of God in it all, and peeling off the layers of deeper meanings of trauma and how to move into the future. On Friday there had been three services — an interfaith service in another church, a memorial in a college auditorium, and an evening of song and reflection at Mother Emanuel, which we attended. On Saturday morning there was a large breakfast sponsored by the two state senators (one of whom had taken the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s seat in the legislature). Here, members of the victims’ families spoke with poignant eloquence about those whose lives and deaths were still fresh. The whole event was punctuated by the rousing and contagious selections by a wonderful choir. The crowd spilled out into the central square, joined by others and formed a march. Together we moved to the front of Mother Emanuel where the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark, and Mayor John Tecklenburg again addressed the crowd and led a moment of silence as the families of the victims, all dressed in white, released nine, and then five more, doves. The march then processed to the Charleston Galliard Center where gospel singer Shirley Caesar joined with the multiracial community choir and a liturgical dance team of angelic girls in performing a moving original composition, “Emanuel.” Trees for each of the victims and survivors were dedicated in this civic space. The Rev. Dr. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., and Director of the Atlanta-based Center in his name, addressed the crowd. She spoke about losing both her father to gun violence when she was very young and then at age 11 having her grandmother gunned down during a church service. Her challenge was to work for changes in gun laws.
Throughout the events, we listened carefully not just to public speech but engaged in conversations with church members and citizens of Charleston. There are so many sound bites from a year ago that have been seared in the national consciousness: family members facing the shooter two days later, offering forgiveness; President Obama delivering the eulogy at the Rev. Pinckney’s funeral and breaking into “Amazing Grace”; the Republican Governor, Nikki Haley, leading the effort to bring down the Confederate flag over the State House. But it is in this congregation and this city where the hard work of grief and transformation has been a daily reality for the past year. A recurring theme expressed in testimonies, speeches, and conversations, by both religious and political leaders, whether church members or not, was “June 17, 2015 changed me, changed us.” But how?
Immediately after the shootings, a representative of the gun lobby had stated that if the Rev. Pinckney had been armed, and allowed his members to carry guns, this massacre might have been prevented. This statement was wrong on so many levels, but we did wonder whether, in fact, Mother Emanuel had felt the need to arm themselves, an understandable response to such violence and vulnerability. In entering the church, we passed by several police officers standing on the street but there were no armed guards in the church, no purse checks or metal detectors. In fact, there were no guns in sight — but there were a lot more security cameras. The fellowship hall now had a screen relaying input from 12 surveillance cameras on the premises that had certainly not been there before. The church had been smart and careful to enhance safety, but clearly they did not believe their security would come from weapons. They had died by the sword/guns, but they would not live by them.
The anniversary observances were held against the backdrop of the massacre in Orlando the weekend before, which was often mentioned. Street performers in the park began their break dance show with a moment of silence for those killed in the gay nightclub in Florida. The Rev. Dr. Clark told the congregation on Friday evening she had been invited to go to the White House in the preceding week, to be honored by Michelle Obama. Instead, she traveled to Orlando to be present with those grieving the loss of the 49 young victims. She told the church that as she prayed with and hugged people there, “I didn’t see gender. I didn’t see ethnicity. I didn’t see sexual orientation. I saw people. People who were suffering and people whom God loves.” Their suffering had not created a cocoon, but had enabled them to cross social barriers to embrace others who were suffering.
One speaker, a magazine editor from Chicago, observed that “trauma can lead people to become more shallow and brittle, or it can make them deeper. I have not seen or heard anything here that is shallow…” We certainly heard this depth in many ways, but especially as members of Mother Emanuel talked about forgiveness. This was not a simple, easy, cheap-grace forgiveness extended to the one who had murdered their beloved pastor, mother, sister, son, grandmother, friend. From the members of Mother Emanuel we heard that forgiveness was hard work, a daily struggle to love their enemy. But finally, they believed, their individual transformation was related to the transformation God seeks for the world.
Weariness was apparent. Even so, there was a depth of resolve we see too rarely in our society as there were calls for courageous witness and action to prevent gun violence. Those who had lost so much called for substantial changes in gun laws to ban assault weapons, limit the capacity of ammunition clips or magazines, and to expand background checks for all gun purchases. Trauma can bring depth…but also clarity and commitment.
The commemoration continued into worship on Sunday morning which also focused on Father’s Day. Three pews of African American men representing Pastor Pinckney’s fraternity brought a significant financial gift in honor of the victims. The Mayor played piano and sang a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace” to a smiling and somewhat surprised congregation. Dr. Clark preached in a traditional Black preaching style a pastoral sermon about Christ’s presence in the midst of all our struggles from loss of job or home to the threat of violence. It was church being church. And it was a privilege to be there.
Photos by the Rev. Dr. Storm Swain