It was last Saturday afternoon when my heart got stuck in my throat. It was because of a church.
I grew up with that church. It was part of my routine on Sunday mornings. When I was young in my single digits, wearing a power-blue jacket and a bad haircut, I used to count steeples.
We Rowes would be driving toward The Battery toward our own white-columned church in downtown Charleston, and I’d be in the back seat of my parents’ boat of an Oldsmobile.
My dad would drive by the tree-shaded square named after the “Swamp Fox” – always loved that nickname — and I’d look to my left down Calhoun Street and spot another steeple above a beautiful white church.
Emanuel AME Church.
I never stepped into that church. I thought I had as a high schooler. I figured I had slipped on a red jacket, stood on the back riser with the Middleton Singers and sang in yet another church in downtown Charleston.
We had sung at so many churches back then. But nope. Not there. I checked. We had never performed at Emanuel AME Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South known as Mother Emanuel.
I had never shadowed the doorway of that historic church a block or so off Francis Marion Square. My loss. Mother Emanuel was simply part of a childhood game I did to enliven a usually boring 25-minute commute to a Sunday morning service.
Oh yeah, the number of steeples counted? Can’t remember. Just loads. Charleston wasn’t called the Holy City for nothin’.
But that’s all I really remembered of Mother Emanuel.
That is, until four years ago this week.
Of course, we all remember the details. I remember the numbers.
Their ages: 26, 41, 45, 49, 54, 59, 70, 74, 87.
Shot by a 21-year-old man. He spent 45 minutes in their Bible study class, shoulder to shoulder with them, before firing 74 rounds from a .45-caliber Glock pistol.
June 17, 2015.
I saw the front page of my hometown paper, a paper I delivered briefly from my bike as a kid. I posted it on my FB page and wrote: “It’s my hometown trying to recover. May that be so.”
Other than that, I felt helpless. What could I do? What could any of us do?
Eight days after his 21st birthday, a high school dropout from small-town South Carolina drove toward the coast, bent on starting a race war in the Holy City.
My heart grew heavy in the days following our country’s newest mass shooting – I know, when will they end, right? That’s when I heard from my longtime friend I call “OD.”
We grew up together in Charleston, played basketball together at Middleton. He’s a few older than me, and he was wicked good, especially in the paint. He was the Charles Barkley of Charleston, a first-team All-Stater, a player you wanted to have the ball in the waning seconds of any game.
OD is now ordained minister in Greensboro, a senior administrative officer at Mt. Zion Baptist, a church with one of the largest congregations on the East Coast.
Four days after the mass shooting, OD wrote on my FB page underneath the poignant A-1 art from the Post and Courier: “Our hometown will recover, my friend.”
Will it? Could it?
Like many Southern cities, Charleston wasn’t immune to the scar of racial hatred. But growing up, I had always hoped we had moved past it even with Fort Sumter perched as a constant reminder in the Charleston harbor to our ugly past.
But as an adult, chasing quotes as a journalist for a quarter century in North Carolina, I knew that was a wishful thought.
I had seen up-close and written about the institutional racism around us. But I never really felt the sting of racism. I was a white guy who never had to worry about being tailed in a department store by a security guard.
But OD had felt it. He and I have talked about it, and as a black man, a married father with two grown sons, OD has had to deal his whole life of being labeled by the color of your skin, not the strength of your character.
I don’t have an answer about how to deal with that kind of darkness. But I found a bright light Saturday afternoon when I finished Van Jones’ 2017 book, “Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Can Come Together.’’
He was in Charleston at Mother Emanuel days after the mass shooting for CNN. In his book, he wrote:
When I got done with my on-air commentary, it was beginning to get dark outside. A black police officer came over to my fellow CNN personality, Don Lemon, and me. “Hey, brothers,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
He led us across the street to the church. It was cordoned off, but he got Don and me through the police lines. We went down the stairs and into the basement, where Roof had opened fire.
The blood had been wiped clean.
The bodies were gone. We saw pictures of Jesus, inspirational slogans, big calendars of upcoming trips and activities. Crayon drawings of all the things that had been in the imaginations of the children who had been here just days before. The basement was a cared-for and well-to-do space. It was hard not to be impressed with how beautiful it was. Almost immaculate.
Except for the bullet holes in the walls.
The officer led us around and explained what had happened. How these people had been shot over here and those people had been shot over there. It felt surreal, to be standing in the very spot where human beings had lost their lives so senselessly.
I turned to go after this macabre tour, but the officer said, “No, come on back here. I want you to see something else.”
We kept walking through the basement, past more bullet holes, toward what would have been the back exit. A short flight of stairs led back up to the street level, a shattered glass door, more police tape. The officer pointed to the ground. At the foot of the stairs, the marble tiles lay broken and cracked.
“Oh my God,” I thought, “the weight of the bodies on the stretchers must have cracked the marble when they brought the victims out.”
I didn’t want to see any more. I thanked the officer and turned to go again, but the officer asked me, “You know what that is?’
“The gurneys broke the tile?” I offered.
“No, no,” he said. “This is where the last person fell, while trying to get out. The shooter kept firing down – and the bullets broke up the floor.”
That’s when I lost it.
Some innocent churchgoer – like the ones I had met at innumerable conferences I had attended as a child with my grandfather – had gotten this far, a few steps away from safety, but had been shot again and again by a despicable racist. This coward.
Rage and sorrow overwhelmed me. If I could have found the shooter at that moment, I might have strangled him with my bare hands. I wanted to pull a thunderbolt from the sky and strike him down. In that moment, I didn’t feel very much Christian compassion or love. Maybe none at all.
The next morning, I was still seething. I could barely make eye contact with anyone. I was sitting with CNN anchor Jake Tapper, preparing to go on the air. We were both mic’ed up, sweating, and sad. The funeral service was just beginning.
Suddenly we started to hear something – music, coming from across the street, from the church, Mother Emmanuel.
A big, beautiful, upbeat sound with drums and organs and piano. A chorus of voices, a soaring harmony. Totally discordant with how we were feeling. The camera people began saying, “What is that?”
The music swelled around us. It seemed to lift us all from below.
“It’s amazing,” Jake said to me, off air. “How is it possible? They actually sound happy.”
I smiled and sat up,
“That’s not happiness,” I told him.
I explained that there is a distinction in the black church between happiness and joy. Happiness is dependent on external circumstances, but joy comes from within. Despite the circumstances, we say, “Hallelujah, anyhow.”
It’s our way of saying that you’re not going to take away my dignity or my inner knowledge that I have worth, if only in the eyes of my Creator. You’re not going to take my humanity. You’re not going to turn me into something other than a beautiful child of God.
The songs kept pouring out into the streets, which were filling up with people. Black people and white people, together. Many of them held each other and cried. The music reached out to all of us.
It was a celebration and acknowledgement that the Charleston community could find a sense of deeper purpose and community, even in the face of the worst kind of racial violence.
The capacity for forgiveness shown by the families of the victims toward Dylann Roof stands as a model of the most courageous, spiritually centered, and morally grounded response to hatred in our nation. The courts sentenced Roof to death, but family members say they do not want the killer to be killed in their name.
Even in the midst of division and despair, Charleston reminds me that human beings have untapped potential for forgiveness, solidarity, and transcendence.
The black community has been forced to develop those resources and refine them over painful decades and centuries. The same can be said of other groups who have had to struggle to find a place in America.
It is unfair that people suffering at the bottom and margins of our society are always expected to bear the burden of also being morally strong. America should not take such dignity and beauty for granted. The only fair response is for the rest of America to match the example set in that beautiful Southern town.
Understanding across all of these barriers of color and creed may sometimes seem impossible. But if the good people of Charleston can find that reservoir within themselves, find hallelujah anyhow – then so can the rest of us.
When I read this passage last Saturday afternoon, I wept.
It reminded me not just the compassion I found in my hometown, but the compassion I see on a daily basis in and around my adopted hometown of Greensboro.
And even in the face of such tragedy and such darkness, we as a community have it in us to rise up and work to recover.
We do live in a divided America. Cable news will tell us that every millisecond. And this week, we entered the beginning of what will be an incredibly nasty presidential campaign where an incumbent will sling words of hatred that will cut deep.
But this week, something else happened that could be a salve to our nation’s festering wounds. The documentary, “Emanuel,” produced by actress Viola Davis and North Carolinian and NBA star Stephen Curry, was released.
In an interview I found this week in the Washington Post, the director Brian Ivie talked about the project.
First, how he got involved.
“I had just gotten married in June 2015, and I was on my honeymoon in New York. I walked into the bedroom, and my wife was crying. She told me nine people had been shot in their Bible study in Charleston.
“Then she looked at me and said, “You don’t understand, they’re forgiving him. The family members are forgiving the murderer.” I remember looking at her and saying, “I hope whoever tells that story doesn’t skip that part.
“It was that moment for me — encountering this radical, scandalous forgiveness and love for the murderer — that drew me into the story. I wanted the world to know that part of the story.”
Next, how this story was different.
“It was that they loved him. It was this moment when (survivor) Felicia Sanders said something to him that really changed me: “We enjoyed you.
“When I go out and talk about the film, I’m not just talking about them forgiving him because they wanted to be emotionally free from him. I’m talking about a kind of love you rarely see. Their love for the shooter was a love that said, “I will bear the full weight of the wrong,” which is the highest kind of love — a love for your enemy.”
And finally, the takeaway, what he hoped we all can learn from the film.
“There is a sense that God is present and that he has also promised that there will be a day when there will be perfect justice and that he will wipe away every tear and that he will bring to pass the kind of world and kingdom where we won’t have to have security guards at our doors. We won’t have to frisk people as we hug them in our church services.”
When I think back to my Sunday mornings of counting steeples, it feels so sepia-toned, so naive. We as a nation had problems then, and we as a nation have big – maybe even bigger — problems now.
We will remain divided, racism will always exist and people will continue to hate one another over everything from the color of their skin to what team they pull for in the Super Bowl.
Scary, right? But I know none of us can throw up our hands in despair and say, “Enough already!” Can’t.
It reminds me of a few sentences I found recently in Paul Rogat Loeb’s 2010 book “Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Challenging Times.”
“If we convince ourselves that nothing can change, we don’t have to risk acting on our dreams. But the more we accept this, the more we deny essential parts of ourselves. We deny even the possibility that our choices can matter.”
I admit I wrestle weekly with the whole thought of “What’s the use?” Then, I remember something I heard two weeks ago on Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being.”
It was recorded in April 2016, and Tippett was interviewing Michelle Alexander, the Ohio State law professor and author of the 2012 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
“Once my own eyes were opened, there was no way I could unsee.
“There was no way that I could be blind anymore to what I had been in denial about for so long. And I think on many levels there are days when I think, oh, life might have been easier if I’d never woken up.
“And I think that’s one of the reasons why many of us stay asleep, because we sense that if we really woke up to the full reality and opened ourselves to seeing and witnessing and being present for the unnecessary suffering that exists, and that we’re complicit with, that our life won’t be as easy.
“More might be required of us, and we’re having a hard-enough time making it through the day as it is.
But I have to say that waking up and seeing things as they are has also led me to just the most rewarding relationships and work that I could imagine.
“And I’m grateful to be awake and consciously committed to trying to birth a new America, and no longer lost in this fantasy, this American dream world that if you just get the two-car garage and keep plodding along this path, that somehow we’re going to make it to where we all want to go.
“So, I have to say that I’m grateful. The relationships that I now have, and the work that I’m now involved in is much richer and more meaningful than the path that I had been on before.”
Then, in a question that reminded me of what I discovered in Van Jones’ book – as well as what Brian Ivie said he found in his documentary — Krista Tippett asked a follow-up question.
It’s a question she often asks her guests at the end of her show.
“And how do you think all of this has shaped, evolved your sense of what it means to be human?”
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this notion of “revolutionary love” and what that means. And it’s something that I spoke with Vincent Harding quite a bit about.
“And I think for me what it means to be fully human is to open ourselves to fully loving one another in an unsentimental way.
“I’m not talking about the romantic love, or the idealized version of love, but that the simple act of caring for one another, and being aware of our connectedness as human beings, and also the reality of our suffering, and the reality that we make a lot of mistakes, and we struggle and we fail.
“That’s all part of being human.
“We suffer, we love, we struggle, we fail, and then we love again.
“And I think trying not to imagine that we’re anything more or less than that, as human beings struggling to love and find our way, making mistakes, but still yearning for a deeper connection and a sense of purpose in our lives is what being human is all about.
“Now of course, so many people, not just in the United States, but around the world, are struggling on a daily basis just to survive.
“But even among those folks, what I have found is that there’s love to be found
“There’s joy there.
“All of it.
“And that’s what it means to be human.
“And if we are going to evolve spiritually, morally, as human beings, we’re going to lean in to caring more, and loving more for one another, and honoring our connectedness, and our oneness, and resist that impulse, that fear-driven impulse to divide and label and react with punitiveness rather than care and concern.”
Remembering what’s now known as the “Charleston Nine.”
The cynic in me says what Alexander says is a pipe dream. No way, I think.
But then, I quiet my inner rage and think of what I read in “The Messy Truth,” that passage that brought me to tears, and the possibility of redemption and recovery and the importance of what we all need to do — to fight for what the world needs to be.
To be New Testament. To be Mother Emanuel.
May we all continue to sing.