On June 17th, 2015, a young white man was welcomed into a Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. A short time later, nine people were dead, victims of hate. The shooter, 21~year~old Dylann Roof, reportedly said afterward that he almost didn't go through with the murders because the people he killed had been so nice.
How do we remain open~hearted in the face of atrocities such as this? By listening to those who have experienced them for centuries.
Mother Emmanuel, as the church is affectionately called, was formed in 1818 when over 4,000 free blacks and slaves, weary of discriminatory practices at the city's three Methodist churches, broke away to form their own congregation. As ordinances banned all~black religious gatherings, 140 members were soon arrested and 8 church leaders were subjected to more brutal punishment.
Over the next few years, raids on the church and violence toward the congregation were commonplace. In 1822, 6 members were executed after a secret trial found them guilty of planning a slave revolt, and the church was burned to the ground. Over the next 43 years, congregants continued to meet, often in secret, particularly when all black churches were formally banned in 1834.
Things began to change following the Civil War. In 1872, Emmanuel's first post~war pastor, Richard H. Cain, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Throughout the next century, the church continued to press for human rights, hosting such speakers as Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.
As we know, though, terror, violence and other forms of intimidation continued, giving the people of Mother Emmanuel the right to tutor us now in the proper response to hatred. Hopelessness, cynicism and retaliation are not options they endorse. Rather, in their astonishing willingness to forgive Roof and welcome unknown whites into Sunday service only a few days after the shootings, their example urges us to open to grace and let it move through us as love.
President Obama, another recipient of hate, spoke of the amazing power of grace in his eulogy for the now~deceased Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emmanuel AME. He reminded us that though we have not “earned...this grace, with our rancor and complacency and short~sightedness and fear of each other...we got it all the same.”
Yes, we do. Grace is not earned, and neither is the light of the sun, the bounty of the Earth, or the air that fills our lungs. But these gifts flow to us anyway. And what shall we do with them? We can choose to feed hate and the fear that gives rise to it. Or we can, again and again, add our small thimble~full to a love that endures and is able to forgive in the face of unimaginable pain.
Emmanuel translates as “God is with us.” May know that this is so, as we open our hearts to fully receive the grace offered. And may we offer our small light to that larger flame, again and again, this day and always. Amen.
Namaste! (in this context translating as “My small light greets your own!")
If you haven't heard President Obama's eulogy, I'd say it's well worth the time. Click here!