State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney, a tall, forty-one year-old African-American man with a deep sonorous “radio voice” spent the earlier part of June 17, 2015, campaigning with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Charleston, South Carolina. But in addition to being a state senator, Pinckney was also a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and that evening he had to attend a scheduled important meeting and a bible study.
Pinckney’s Charleston parish – Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, affectionately known as “Mother Emanuel,” is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South and one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland. The scheduled meeting had several items on its agenda. There was the matter of the church elevator, a project that had long been under construction. Then there was the budget that needed review. And, finally, there were the three parishioners who were to be officially received as new preachers. June 17 was a busy, but an ordinary day for the state senator and senior pastor.
The meeting that day was held in the church basement and ended around 8:00 p.m. The crowd of about fifty attendees dwindled to twelve of the congregation’s devout members, who would remain for the Wednesday night Bible study.
It was also about 8:00 p.m., when the visitor – a youngish white man, with a slender five foot, nine inch build and a distinctive sandy blond hair style – came to the door, asking for the pastor. It was unusual for a stranger, much less a white one, to come to the Wednesday night session, but the Bible study was open to all, and the Reverend Pinckney welcomed him. They sat together around a green table, prayed, sang, and then opened their Bibles for a study of the Scriptures. The text for the evening was Mark 4:16-20, which likens the word of God to a seed that must fall on good soil to bear fruit: “And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
At about 9:00 p.m., as the Bible study group was wrapping up, the sound of gunfire and terrified cries shattered the evening calm. In the pastor’s office, Reverend Pinckney’s wife, Jennifer, who had been waiting patiently with their younger daughter, Malana, turned off the lights, locked the door, hugged her child close, and called 911.
Felicia Sanders, who was in the basement at the time, heard the gunfire before actually seeing who the gunman was and hid under a table, shielding her eleven-year-old granddaughter as the carnage unfolded around her. She saw blood everywhere. The white visitor was doing the shooting, and he reloaded his weapon five times. Felicia Sanders survived only by pretending to be one of the slain.
Sanders’ son, twenty-six year-old Tywanza, a recent graduate of Allen University, reached out his hand to Susie Jackson, 87, a member of Emanuel’s choir and his great-grand aunt, who had also been shot and touched her hair.
The gunman was heard to say: “Y’all are raping our women and taking over the country. This must be done.” Then he shot Tywanza Sanders. A moment later, he asked a woman if she had been shot yet. When she said no, he said: “Good. Someone has to live to tell the story, because I’m going to kill myself, too.”
Soon, the gunman left, fleeing in his black Hyundai Elantra and leaving behind nine church members dead or dying, including the Reverend Pinckney and two of the newly ordained ministers, each shot multiple times with a .45-caliber handgun. The stranger – identified later by the police as Dylann Roof, a twenty-one-year-old high school dropout and sometime landscaper – was the person responsible for the three men and six women left in a bloody pile in the basement of Mother Emanuel.
In a matter of minutes, the future of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was changed forever. In a matter of minutes, a holy place became the scene of a most unholy act. Church leaders were lost, along with parishioners. Children were left without a mother or a father; a girls’ track team lost its coach; a university was suddenly without its admissions coordinator; a county library found itself without its library manager; the housekeeping staff at the city’s Gaillard Auditorium would have one less employee. And residents of all races in Charleston, South Carolina recoiled in horror as one of its most prominent buildings was desecrated by intolerant racism and bigotry and transformed, if only briefly, into a death house.
It seems that pure unadulterated hatred possessed alleged killer Dylann Roof and pushed him to attend a Bible study class at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal with evil in his heart – and a .45-caliber pistol in his waistband. Incredulously, Dylann Roof sat with the parishioners for an hour before taking out that gun and opening fire, snuffing out nine lives.
We now know that Dylaan Roof was filled with the kind of racial hatred that forms the core of a conversation with which this great nation continues to struggle. No doubt he had hoped to further drive a wedge into race relations and to further divide this country according to the color of one’s skin.
Certainly, it would be understandable if the reaction to this act, especially in Charleston, South Carolina, were to engage in riotous behavior. That would have been the anticipated reaction to the action of an individual who committed such a heinous, hate-filled act.
But Charleston was different. Charleston did not burn as had Ferguson, Missouri. Charleston did not riot as had Baltimore, Maryland. No. In Charleston, South Carolina, they forgave. Charleston, indeed, lived up to its nickname, “The Holy City.”
What flowed from Charleston, from the community, and in particular from the chocolate wooden pews with scarlet cushions of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was something entirely different, something exceptional, something that just might lead the way out of this horrific darkness.
When Dylaan Roof made his first appearance in court to answer the nine charges of first-degree murder lodged against him, he was met with the antithesis of his racial bitter bile.
Relatives of those he gunned down showed up for the hearing. They did not curse him, or their God. Instead, they expressed forgiveness.
“I forgive you; my family forgives you,” Anthony Thompson said in court. He was still dealing with the murder of his grandmother, Myra Thompson, who had been leading the Bible study on that fateful Wednesday evening. He did not lash out at the suspected gunman. Instead he asked him to repent.
Some people believe that it took an incredible amount of love and faith for family members and loved ones of those killed to publicly declare their forgiveness of twenty-one-year-old white supremacist, Dylann Roof. Frankly, I do not know how they were able to do that. Given the same set of circumstances, I am not sure that I could have done what they did. It was amazing to witness and I stand in awe of such grace, such compassion.
I am reminded of an incident that involved Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. Barton was reminded one day of a vicious deed that someone had done to her years before. But she acted as if she had never even heard of the incident. “Don’t you remember it?” her friend asked. “No,” came Barton’s reply, “I distinctly remember forgetting it.” Neither the members of Mother Emanuel nor the people of Charleston will forget what happened in that basement on that tragic night, but they did the next best thing possible.
At 10 a.m., on the Sunday after the bloody massacre, every church in Charleston tolled its bells in an exhibition of solidarity. For nine long minutes the bells pealed, one minute for each victim. And on that same Sunday morning, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was filled with boisterous noise and raised voices. But those voices were not raised in anger, either against Dylann Roof or the racism that he represented. No. They were raised in forgiveness, and in support of the families of the nine victims, and of the Charleston community that was ripped apart.
Dylann Roof will soon be forgotten – as he should be – reduced to a sad and despicable footnote in the annals of American history, as this great nation continues to debate, to analyze, and to struggle with the heated topic of race relations.
In the wake of such a venomous act as that committed by Dylaan Roof in Charleston, we, as a nation, look for answers. We look for a path. We look for the way out of this vile madness.
So once again, we will talk about race.
Once again, we will talk about guns.
Once again, we will talk about flags – Confederate battle flags, this time.
And once again, we will talk about politics.
Eventually, no doubt these same topics will be talked about at Mother Emanuel and in Charleston as well. But first, they are talking about forgiveness.
But as President Barack Obama said so inspiringly in his moving eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney: “None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. Every time something like this happens, somebody says, ‘We have to have a conversation about race.’ We talk a lot about race.
“There’s no shortcut. We don’t need more talk.
“None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy.
“It will not. People of good-will will continue to debate the merits of various policies as our democracy requires – the big, raucous place, America is. And there are good people on both sides of these debates.
“Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete. But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.
“Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual. That’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.
“To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change, that’s how we lose our way again. It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.”
People like Dylann Roof hope to deepen the racial divide in this country even further, perhaps even to start a race war. But the parishioners of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church will not let that happen. In his sermon on the Sunday after the killings, the Reverend Norvel Goff, interim pastor of Mother Emanuel said: “A lot of folk expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot. Well, they just don’t know us. We are a people of faith. We believe that when we put our forces and our heads together, working for a common good, there is nothing we can’t accomplish together in the name of Jesus.”
And then, just one week after Roof’s heinous act desecrated their sacred space and killed nine of their parishioners, including their pastor, worshippers gathered once again in the same room where bullets once flew and blood was spilled. “This territory belongs to God,” the Reverend Norvel Goff told the roughly 150 people gathered for the resumption of the weekly Bible study in the basement of the church. Fittingly, the theme for the study was “The Power of Love.”
AND, the people of Charleston, and especially, the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have shown a watching nation looking for an answer that there is a way out of this horrible darkness. The way is called forgiveness. And forgiveness is alive and well in Charleston, South Carolina.
Hatred brought our attention to Charleston, South Carolina. Forgiveness just might bring us out. As Jermaine Watkins, who is an African-American and a teaching pastor at Charleston’s Journey Church said in a meeting after the killings: “To hatred, we say no way – not today. To racism, we say no way – not today. To division, we say no way – not today. To loss of hope, we say no way – not today. To a racial war, we say no way – not today. To racial fear, we say no way – not today. Charleston, together, we say no way – not today. To reconciliation, we say yes.”
My fervent hope is that he is right.