Ever since I found out about the shooting of 9 Emanuel AME Church members during a weekly prayer meeting last night, I have been at a loss for words. Really, anytime a tragedy happens that affects my community, I am at a loss for words. #Ferguson. #EricGarner. #WalterScott. #Baltimore. #McKinney. #RachelDolezal. This loss often renders me speechless in my social media spaces, not because I don’t care but because there are so many dynamics at play that I usually end up ruminating over the situation for days before I can even articulate what angers me most about it.
As an AME, I can’t help but think about the implications of this particular act of violence, both historically and politically. The AME denomination was founded as a response to injustice that black slaves found within the Methodist church. For as long as I can remember, the AME church has always been about justice, empowerment, and self-determination for black people. We’re not a perfect denomination by any stretch, but at least initially, that has been our M.O. Not only that, but the AME church has been a safe space. At least that’s what it has been for me, particularly since returning to the denomination after 13 years. With all the recent headlines of injustice swirling through the media these days, it has provided me some solace to know that the church was a place to go and lament over black lives lost, without question and without accusation. Learning that the pastor of Emanuel AME, Rev. Clementa Pinkney, was an active voice in his community who spoke out against police violence, I see this attack not just one against a particular church, but against a movement and against the freedom of the black voice.
This morning I got a little help sorting through my reactions via an interview with Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham on The View. “It’s not a window into the soul of South Carolina,” Graham said. “It’s not who we are, it’s not who our country is, it’s about this guy. This guy has got tons of problems.” As he said those words, I couldn’t help but think about all the pictures of auction blocks in Charleston, SC. Do we really want to talk about the “soul of South Carolina?” Last time I checked, Charleston was the hotbed of American slavery. Of course, that’s not PC to talk about these days, because that’s making everything about race, but for us to assume that that reality is not embedded into the fabric of America’s story, and that its ramifications which have been handed down multiple generations, did not somehow influence the shooter.
“But it’s 2015, there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them,” said Graham. But this case is not about religious persecution. It is in the sense that these black people of the community welcomed this young man into their safe space, and continued to pray while, unbeknownst to the, this man sat in their midst and brooded over the heinous crime he was about to commit. But to me this isn’t about hatred for someone’s beliefs. This is a hate crime against people for being who they are, for being black. Christians don’t get off that easy by calling this religious prosecution.
At the end of the interview, Rosie Perez asks of Graham “How do we move forward from this?” I can’t help wonder if this question is the problem. We always want to move forward before we have allowed ourselves to sit in the mess and assess the damage. We keep “moving on” and then we’re blindsided when the lives of black people are devalued once again. We “moved forward” from #Ferguson, we’ve “moved forward” from Baltimore, to the point that a lot of people aren’t even talking about them anymore. Maybe instead of trying so hard to “move forward”, we need to sit in this mess called racism and figure out how to deal with the systems that make a 21 year old male walk into a house of worship and open fire.
I’m on my way to a prayer vigil at First AME Church in LA to pray for Charleston. I know some would say what is the point of prayer, and to be honest, I really don’t feel like praying right now. But when I think about what it means to move forward, and when I think about what it means to be an AME in a time like this, I wonder what would happen if we reached back to our roots and sought to be advocates for our community, and if we jumped into the fire to fight against racism both socially and systemically. And if we did, who else would join in?