3 Months After Tragic Shooting, a Visit to Mother Emanuel AME Church

Members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church stream out after the service ended on September 27, 2015 in Charleston, SC. (Alex Holt / for the Chicago Tribune)
Members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church stream out after the service ended on September 27, 2015 in Charleston, SC. (Alex Holt / for the Chicago Tribune)

My visit to Mother Emanuel AME church three months after white supremacist killed nine black members

If you know what happened at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, you might wonder how a sermon titled “We Still Have Joy” could be delivered here.

 

You might be surprised that the pastor could make you laugh several times during the service, especially because all you’d really wanted to do as you walked up the 150-year-old church’s front steps was cry.

But that was the case Sunday morning as visitors from throughout the country joined members of Emanuel in a towering sanctuary that sits directly above a lower level where a white supremacist massacred nine African-American members who had invited him to join their Wednesday night Bible study.

Before the shooting, the historic church had struggled to fill its seats. Since the shooting, the pews have been overflowing with folks such as me who come believing they’re checking in on parishioners’ healing, but actually are there in part to take stock of their own.

Emanuel was catapulted onto the international stage not only because of the horrific act but because of the shocking speed by which some members expressed forgiveness toward Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old man charged with the slayings of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman Singleton, 45, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, Tywanza Sanders, 26, Ethel Lance, 70, Cynthia Hurd, 54, Susie Jackson, 87, and Myra Thompson, 59.

Church members who readily forgave Roof knew that not everyone outside the church would understand it. They also knew that not every member shared the sentiment.

“It took me a while,” said Elizabeth Alston, 70, Emanuel’s archivist and a longtime member. “If somebody shot my mother, I didn’t think I could be as forgiving, but now I could. I just felt that I’ve been praying ‘forgive those who trespass against us’ (from The Lord’s Prayer) for years, and now it was time to re-examine those words and practice it.”

But member Willi Glee, 75, doesn’t believe he will ever truly forgive Roof. Glee had been in the church for two separate meetings on the night of the shooting. He had told Myra Thompson that he would make a rare appearance in the Bible study group after his last meeting.

“But it went long and I got really hungry and I left,” Glee said. “Everyone who knows me knows that food is never a priority. I went to dinner with a friend and when I got home, my grandson told me there was a shooting at the church.”

I asked Glee how the event has changed him and his faith. He said that prior to that night, he never believed that God “micromanages” our daily lives.

“Today I’m not so sure,” he said. “The fact that I left because I was hungry, something I’ve never done in my life, makes me wonder (about whether God intervened). I’m conflicted about that. But I’ve also always wondered about the Holocaust, and where God was, and about Bible verses that don’t match up.”

Malcolm Graham, the brother of Cynthia Hurd, said he refuses to refer to his sister in the past tense because that would mean Roof took something from him.

“I don’t think I can say, ‘I forgive,’ ” Graham said by phone from his office in Charlotte, N.C. He grew up attending Emanuel and his parents’ funerals were held there. “For those who said it, I respect it, but we have to pause and ask some rough questions.”

Graham, a former North Carolina state senator, told me the massacre was an attack on a race of people, a culture and the Christian church, and there was no doubt in his mind that the act was a form of domestic terrorism.

“Their character didn’t matter,” he said. “Their bios didn’t matter. But for that incident, the Confederate flag would still be flying (at the Capitol). We have to say that racism still exists in this country, and there are still unintended, unconscious biases that exist throughout our society.”

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SOURCE: Chicago Tribune
Dawn M. Turner

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