Loving God is never separate from loving our brothers and sisters. It’s always the same.Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney
I was a pastor serving a congregation in West Columbia, South Carolina when the Charleston church shooting took place, five years ago tomorrow, June 17, 2015. It happened the same night that my wife’s parents’ home was broken into – a neighborhood person with a substance use disorder was desperate and looking for medication. They broke into my in-laws’ home while they were at their church for bible study, about 100 miles up the road from Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston. Where nine people, who were also at their church for bible study, were brutally killed. For me, these two events will always be linked, but they are so different. One, the desperate act of a person living with addiction, non-violent, and not targeting anyone in particular. The other, an intentional, planned, violent act; targeting people because of the color of their skin, and hoping to incite further violence and hatred, even ignite a race war. Yes, these two events are linked in my memory, but so, so different.
I remember how shocked I was to hear that the killer, a young man my children’s age, sat through an entire Bible study that night, with a group that welcomed him with open arms, before he opened fire and began deliberately executing the very people who had just prayed with him. I remember asking questions with no answers. Why would anyone do this? How could anyone do this? At a church? While they prayed? Why?
I remember learning that the killer was a Lutheran, like me; that he was baptized and confirmed at a nearby Lutheran church, his family members still there. It shook me to my core when I learned this. It still does.
I remember the killer’s bond hearing. It still brings tears to my eyes. The families of the nine who were killed addressing the killer. I forgive you, they said. I forgive you. I forgive you. Repent, turn to the Lord, and God will forgive you, too. I remember. How could I forget? Could I have done that? Could I have said those words, at that moment, having been through what they had gone through? Would I have done that, said that? If a black man came into my church and sat through my Bible study and shot and killed nine of us, just because of the color of their skin, perhaps a member of my family, could I have said what they said?
I remember the discussion that followed about the Confederate flag flying on our state house grounds. I remember being asked about it at our bible study the next week, as I looked out the window at our church cemetery, with Confederate flags flying at each of the graves of our church members who fought and died in the Civil War. I looked out at our cemetery, at those flags, picturing the killer holding that same flag in his hands. I remember the relief I felt when the Confederate flag was removed from the state house grounds.
I remember another day, in that same church cemetery, when I was met by a man who stopped by our church to tell me that none of our church members – his ancestors – who fought in the Civil War were slave-owners. “That’s not what the war was about!” he said. I remember learning later, from one of our church members with an interest in history, about a church member who owned at least one slave. He showed me the document listing the slave among his possessions.
I remember, too, in the days and weeks after the shooting, continuing to learn about the families of the victims, and about the nine people who were killed. I especially remember learning about The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Senior Pastor of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, a state senator, who received his M.Div. degree from the same seminary where I received my M.Div. degree – Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. I began to learn more about this remarkable man, and grieved what his death meant – not just to his family, but to his church and to the wider community.
I remember hearing our president quote Rev. Pinckney in his eulogy: “Reverend Pinckney once said, ‘Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history – we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.'”
“What is true in the South,” President Obama went on to say that day at Pastor Clem’s memorial service, “is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past – how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind – but, more importantly, an open heart.“
An open heart. Yes. An open mind, I have come to realize, is the easy part. An open heart is much harder, because it opens us to the pain in this world, to the terrible things that we would rather ignore, or forget. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I think that he was inviting his followers to open their hearts, and to mourn the brokenness of this world. To remember, even when it hurts our hearts.
And so, on the eve of this terrible anniversary, I remember. And I hope that all who read this will remember, too. Remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who were killed while attending a bible study: Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson. Remember them, and pray for their families, for their church, for our world. As I continue to pray for all who grieve their tragic, cruel deaths, I pray that all who mourn may find comfort in the knowledge that Jesus was present with the Emanuel Nine as they welcomed the stranger, as they studied God’s word, as they prayed, and as they died. Their church’s very name promises that: “Emanuel.” Yes, God was with them then, and God is with them now. Jesus promises that. May we never forget.
I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.John 11:25-26
P.S. There is a powerful documentary, “Emanuel,” that is currently available to stream for free. You can learn more about it here: https://www.emanuelmovie.com/home