A version of this post was posted on the website abelhouse.church on Thursday, 18 June 2015.
My heart is broken. Nine people I love died last night. They were my soul mates. I weep for our faith’s loss, for our nation’s loss, for South Carolina’s loss, for Charleston’s loss, for their families’ loss, for my loss.
At 9:00 p.m. last evening, I sat here in Florida with my Abel House family in Melissa and Kevin’s home, head bowed, as Robert, our pastor-leader, prayed our benediction. We had gathered for Bible study, fellowship, and worship. We had spent time together in peace and safety. Ironically, Robert had mentioned in the opening moments of the evening that one of our blessings is that we have the freedom to be Christians without fear of persecution.
Only 380 miles away, in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest AME churches in the United States, another group of Christians who love the Lord met for Bible study, fellowship, and worship. Founded in 1816 by the Charleston Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina, Emanuel has housed countless such meetings, but not always in peace and safety.
Emanuel has endured a history of a founder’s being accused of plotting a slave revolt soon after its founding, of being burned by white supremacists, of being outlawed from the 1830s to the end of the American Civil War, and even an earthquake. It has been built and rebuilt, again and again, but it has endured to hear the words of such men as Booker T. Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to embrace such Christians as those who met there last night.
This has to be one of its saddest hours.
When I say that I love those nine people who welcomed a stranger into their midst, people who were my soul mates, I mean it. No, I did not personally know any of them, nor have I visited Emanuel. But I grew up about 75 miles from Charleston knowing and loving the city and state they almost certainly loved. I grew up knowing and loving South Carolinians. I grew up knowing and loving the Lord Jesus Christ. I grew up knowing and loving Christians. I grew up knowing and loving people just like those very people.
My years of greatest growth in the Lord were spent worshipping with my father, my siblings, and my close-knit church family in the small Varnville Baptist Church in Varnville, South Carolina. I was baptized in its baptismal pool, surrounded by a mural of the river Jordan on 11 May 1958 when I was twelve years old, having believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior since I was three.
When I was thirteen years old, I left the church choir to be church pianist for all services. When I was about fifteen years old, I became the church organist. By then, the choir always included my father and several of my six siblings. I spent Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings there in that church with its people—warm, faithful, God-fearing, God-loving Christians of South Carolina—all white people.
In the early 1960s, I served the church as chairperson of the music committee. During the new-business part of a meeting of church committees, another chairperson brought up the matter of civil and racial unrest sweeping the South. I sensed tension and even fear among the men I had known for so many years as leaders of the community as well as the church. I was stunned.
The first debate on that matter looked at possible problems and centered on the name of the church. The question was whether or not the name should be changed to First Baptist Church of Varnville so that a black congregation could not claim that name. When the matter was presented to the church for a vote the next Sunday, the congregation voted to keep the Varnville Baptist Church name. I doubt that question has ever arisen again.
The second debate centered on what would be done should one black person or even more than one enter the church. After discussion, a plan, most of the details long forgotten, was drawn up. I, as organist, and the preacher had the best view of anyone entering through the double doors at the back of the church, so I was to begin playing any familiar hymn introduction very loudly so that the congregation would stand and be led to sing while the church leaders followed through with their own plan to prevent any trouble until the visitors could be seated.
I have thought, I have hoped, and I have prayed that we are beyond those times.
But what happened last night means we are not beyond those times more than fifty years later. The nine people of Emanuel AME Church died in that church not because they were Christians but because they were black Christians. The hatred lives on.
I am glad that I grew up in a church that wanted to avoid the battles ensuing in other places in the South. But I am sad that such a subject was even raised. I am glad that such an outrageous plan never was implemented at Varnville Baptist Church. I am sad that that may be because no black person ever entered through those double doors to worship with the good people there.
I am glad that the people of Emanuel opened their doors to all, even including that young man. I am sad for the terrible aftermath. I am glad for the outpouring of love for the people of my beloved childhood home state. I am sad, sad, sad once again for the hatred still found there.
In the reported words of the killer, a man little older than I was when I was organist at Varnville Baptist Church, I hear echoes of statements I heard as a Southern child and as a Southern woman. And I am sickened again.
Please, God, help us to find a way to love all God’s people and to share with them Your amazing grace.