A hated people need safe spaces, but often find they are scarce. Racism aims to crowd out those sanctuaries; even children changing into church choir robes in Alabama have been blown out of this world by dynamite. That is racism’s purpose, its raison d’etre, and it has done its job well. The black church hasn’t been safe since there has been a black church. On Wednesday night, around 9:00 pm, a young white terrorist went to a black Bible study. He spent an hour listening to the word of God with the nine people he would kill in cold blood, one after the other. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Daniel L. Simmons, Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and the church’s pastor and South Carolina state senator, Reverend Clementa Pinckney.
The church where the murders took place, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, was an institution founded partially because the white-controlled Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston discriminated against its black members. In Black Heritage Sites: An African American Odyssey and Finder’s Guide, author Nancy Curtis wrote that the white members “capped the insult” by building a place to park their hearse atop the black burial ground. So the blacks broke away, founding a church that would become a haven not just for the peaceful worship of God and Jesus Christ, but also for the fight for black liberation.
The AME Church was born from this struggle. Richard Allen’s Free African Society broke from traditionally white Methodist churches in Philadelphia years before Morris Brown, founder of “Mother Emanuel,” would do the same in Charleston. Speaking in the Emanuel sanctuary in 2013, Reverend Pinckney himself said the AME church came about “in a fit of civil disobedience and a little issue of theological fairness, if you will.” The first of these churches, Mother Bethel in Philadelphia, stands on the oldest plot of land that African Americans have owned. I began attending Mother Bethel 10 years ago, and eventually became an active member and trustee for several years. I met my wife, a lifelong AME parishioner, in its sanctuary.
When I learned of the Wednesday night shooting, the first thing I did on Thursday morning was call the pastor of Mother Bethel, Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler. I needed to know that my pastor, the man to whom I have frequently turned to for strength, was himself holding up. It was an instinct rooted in my particular practice of Christianity; I need to pray, to worship, to seek guidance.
“As you know, Jamil, the AME Church is very close knit. When it comes to clergy, we’re extremely close. We all know one another, regardless of where you pastor. So it’s not like you’re calling strangers,” Pastor Tyler told me. “Reverend Pinckney was a very good friend of mine, so I’m just really devastated by it all.”
I remember going to several Bible studies led by Pastor Tyler in Mother Bethel’s basement, and never thinking about why I needed to get someone to buzz me in.
“I think the pure idea of sanctuary, at least the Biblical notion, where sanctuary was truly a safe place, and your enemies would respect sanctuary,” the pastor told me. “You got to the sanctuary and none of your enemies would try to come in and hurt and harm you. That notion has been long lost in our society.”
He went on to note that these attacks on our sanctuaries are hardly new and are well documented. Emanuel AME, prior to Wednesday night, was not immune. A thwarted slave revolt was being planned there, to take place on June 17, 1822—193 years before Wednesday’s mass shooting. Emanuel leader Denmark Vesey and dozens of others were summarily hung for it. After murdering the men, Charleston’s white community burned Mother Emanuel to the ground in retribution.
“They were burned, they were torn down, because for many people they became a symbol of resistance and a symbol of a place where black people could organize to try to advance their cause,” Pastor Tyler said of this kind of racist violence. “So maybe I just don’t live with that romantic notion that the church has always been this place off limits, because [for] people who have evil in their heart, that there is no such place.”
A cousin of Reverend Pinckney who had spoken to one of the incident’s three survivors told a local NBC affiliate that the shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, reloaded his weapon five times, even as pleas were made for him to stop shooting. There was evil in his heart. “He just said ‘I have to do it,’” Pinckney’s cousin said. “He said ‘you rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.’”
Roof was a staunch racist, from the Confederate plates on his car to the apartheid-era South African flag sewn to his jacket, circulated in a widely tweeted photo. Even so, I’m less concerned with his racism than the fact that his racism and paranoid fear of a changing world and eroding white power structure led him to terrorism, to attack the traditional heart of Charleston’s black community.
So how do we respond?
Anger boils through my veins as I consume each additional morsel of news. My breath stops as I watch a now-murdered pastor thank God in a prayer two years ago, “for all persons who come, seeking to expand their horizons and seeking to learn more what our country is made of, and what makes us who we are as a people and as a country.”
I am angry knowing that there are people like Roof who take advantage of the black church’s uniquely welcoming attitude in order to steal people’s lives. That anger is real, and legitimate. But it’s corrosive, too. In the midst of the interview, my own rage clouding my thoughts as I spoke, I found my pastor once again providing me—and others—direction.
“I’ve been going back and forth from crying to trying to keep it together,” he told me. “But I do know one thing: that hate got us here. And we can’t use hate to get us out of here. There is something to be said about the ethics of love and that is not something people want to hear in moments like this. Because in moments like this we want to retaliate and we want to give back to the person that which they gave to us and then some on top of it. But that begins a vicious cycle, that’s exactly what that pure spirit of evil wants, is to get us caught up into that cycle that you can never win. There’s no way to win that battle.”
I took his words in, and I ached for that congregation in Charleston that can no longer look to its own pastor for such wisdom, that congregation mourning its father and its brothers and its sisters.
But it is becoming hard to hear that wisdom clearly through the gunshots. It gets harder to love thine enemy the more we come to know them. A church born of black liberation understands the inevitably scarring effects of racism; it understands how we react to American whiteness’ corrosive hatred, so often on display. I certainly hope the church can lead us in this moment, when our skin has been flayed, our bodies broken, and our beautiful souls spit upon. We find ourselves here again: A hated people holding each other tight as the space around us closes in.