This has been a week for introspection. As the Papal whirlwind shut down the nation’s capital, Republicans and Democrats were forced to sit side by side and listen, for a change. Some wept. (I’m looking at you, Mr. Speaker and Mr. Vice President.) If the city wasn't already quietened enough, many of its Jewish citizens turned to prayer and fasting in observance of Yom Kippur, while Muslims prepared to celebrate their Feast of the Sacrifice – or Eid al-Adha.
I, too, spent last weekend in church – at the Circular Congregation in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. That’s where PBS held a town hall meeting, "America After Charleston."
We taped a similar special broadcast last year in St. Louis, Missouri, months after the uproar that consumed the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in the wake of the police-involved shooting of Michael Brown.
The headlines have come and gone since then, as one upheaval after the other drew our attention to Cleveland (Tamir Rice), Baltimore (Eddie Gray), and Waller County, Texas (Sandra Bland). But Charleston was different. Absent in the aftermath of Emanuel A.M.E. Church slaughter was any debate over who was to blame. No one blamed the victims. The survivors of the assault – including their relatives — stood in mostly silent witness. This does not mean there was nothing to say. What I discovered in Charleston is that many residents believe there has been a tremendous amount left unsaid – about race, opportunity and even the future of their rapidly gentrifying community.
Four conversations stick out in my mind. Malcolm Graham, the brother of Cynthia Graham Hurd, who was slain that night, was blunt. "It was an attack on humanity; it was an attack on the Christian church," he told me. "Now, we can’t say that we’re months away from it and that we forgive. I have a forgiving spirit. I do not forgive." This emerged as a running theme. Many Charlestonians – including those who spoke at the accused shooter’s arraignment – publicly embraced the idea of forgiving. But others are not there yet.
Polly Sheppard, her friends lie dying around her, survived the shooting after the gunman told her he would let her live to tell the story of the massacre. Forgiveness for her is a "process" that is still underway. She alone called for gun control. And another black woman, whose name I did not get, was even more blunt. We were way too interested, she said, in erasing our past in order to race forward to a presumably less discomfiting future. "I have nothing but respect for the people who forgive," she said. "But as a community, we’re not forgiving of racism, we’re not forgiving of the injustices that have been perpetrated against us.”
Then there was the man, his eyes shaded by baseball cap, who told me: "As a white man, my main purpose in life right now, is to get out of denial, to unlearn the racism I learned growing up here in the South." Why? I asked. "Grief," he replied.
These words – and those of many others – bounced around in my head this week as I listened to Pope Francis talk about reconciliation and forgiveness and delicate balances. In Washington, and in politics, it is increasingly rare to hear someone who agrees with one of the more trenchant passages in the pontiff’s address to Congress. "A good political leader," he said, "always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."
Or as the Reverend Norvel Goff, the presiding elder and interim pastor at Emanuel, said last Sunday: "Why let people take up space in your head, without paying rent?"
It seemed important that I conclude my weekend in Charleston with a visit to Emanuel. The African Methodist Church runs strong through my family. My father was its General Secretary when he died. My brother is a Presiding Elder now. I loved the embraces I received, the preaching and the music. The portion of Calhoun Street in Charleston in front of the historic building will shortly be renamed in honor of the church. But, as I glanced up into the balcony to see the armed off-duty police officer standing just to the left of the choir, I was reminded that the key word we should always keep in mind as we turn inward and search for meaning – political or religious – is one that recurred throughout the week -- "process."