The door was open for a Wednesday night Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. It had been a busy day at this historic African-American church with several lay members being ordained to preach the Gospel. Once the festivities were over approx. twelve leaders of that church remained to listen for God’s leading from the ancient scripture.
A young white male, age 21 walked in. This was his first time and he received a warm welcome and listened as the small group shared, sang and prayed. At the conclusion when the benediction was given, he took out a handgun and murdered nine people. Each time he reloaded he uttered racist oaths.
The shooter fled and left behind a devastated church who had lost nine well-loved members including their pastor. The city of Charleston and the state of South Carolina which has a long and painful history with slavery, segregation and racism struggled to make sense of such blatant racist hatred.
This tragedy adds to the conversation on racial tension that we as a nation are being forced to have in the wake of recent police shootings of unarmed blacks and abuses of ‘stand your ground laws’ in Florida and elsewhere. It also highlights the desperate need we have to restrict access to guns.
In the midst of the heightened emotions and debate the people of Emmanuel AME Church continue to show us the way to live. Drawing upon their faith in the teachings of Jesus they offer us a way beyond hatred, beyond violence, beyond revenge.
The day after the killings, the families of the murdered stood before the now captured accused and offered forgiveness. Said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance: ‘You took something very precious away from me. But I forgive you. And may God have mercy on your soul.’ One after another, each family member bore that same witness.
In Charleston, the church is known with affection as ‘Mother Emmanuel’. Since its founding as a church for slaves in 1820, this community has witnessed to the Good News that each person is created in the image of God and has inherent worth and beauty. It was a belief that made this church a beacon of hope during the painful days of slavery and Jim Crow. It was this belief that empowered Mother Emmanuel to be a leader for Civil Rights. And, it was this belief that enabled those victimized by an act of racist hatred, to see even their assailant as a fellow child of God, worthy of mercy and forgiveness.
On Sunday morning, just days following the mass murder, the doors to Mother Emmanuel were open. An elderly African-American usher welcomed a little black girl to worship. He wanted her and all of us to know, that love always win. His faith was rooted in the belief that we are loved and cherished by our Creator, that there is no ‘them’ but only ‘us’.