What can you say? The murder of nine people by a gunman at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Wednesday has left people throughout the country mourning and struggling for answers. Meanwhile, the men and women who lead congregations across the country are finding the words to help their followers grieve.
We reached out to pastors and community leaders to ask them how they are addressing the tragedy with their community and what they hope people will keep in mind as they process the gruesome event.
Rev. Bill Lamar, Pastor, Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, Washington, D.C.
We are not surprised by this act of evil. This is Rosewood, this is the destruction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, this is the burning of Black Wilmington, North Carolina, this is Emmett Till all over again. We are not surprised. We must remember our history and know that it is not past.
We must live in the America that is, not the America that will be talked about in a few days on July 4. We must marshal our resources to develop a new narrative in our world and nation. The narrative of redemptive violence is bankrupt. Violence will not beget tranquility. War will not beget peace.
America is drenched in the blood of those conquered, slaughtered, and enslaved to make this a “great” nation. Are we willing to pay the price to be truly free? Are we willing to redistribute wealth and power? Are we willing to extinguish the flame of white supremacy?
Bishop Vashti Mackenzie, Bishop, African Methodist Episcopal Church
What happened was not an episode from “Law and Order” or “CSI-Miami.” It was an all-too-real-life violent, senseless act that makes us, all of us, sit up straight, and we ask: Why? Why now? What ever possessed the gunman?
The answers may come, played out in a real courtroom where the perpetrator may or may not give us the “why” because he has a right to remain silent. But let’s think about this: We do not have the right to remain silent. Edmund Burke writes that evil triumphs because of the silence of good men — and I’ll add men and women. Martin Luther King Jr. indicated that there comes a time when our silence cooperates with our enemies.
Now is the time for a prayerful, thoughtful response, not thoughtless reaction. It is time to turn away from the ways that encourage senseless acts. Let us find common ground. Let us dedicate our harvest to a war on starvation; our education to the war on ignorance; our technology to the war on misery; our democracy to the war on oppression. Let’s raise our communities and country as models of service and sacrifice, virtue and victory; and grace and guts, ever deepening our responsibility to our neighbor. In this hour, never let us forget that we must intercede with our words and our deeds.
Rev. John Foster, Senior Pastor, Big Bethel Church, Atlanta
My message to the congregation at Big Bethel AME Church is that we live in a world where tragedies happen. The events of the past few days in Charleston demonstrate that we have not met the mark of where God wants us to be.
Martin Luther King stated, “We have got to learn how to disagree with each other without being violently disagreeable.” The real sin of what occurred in Charleston at Emanuel AME Church is that we still live in a society where violence is chosen as the preferred choice of action. I believe God’s word is still true: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). God is challenging us to transform our minds by throwing away our legacy addictions to violence.
Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, Pastor, Alfred Street Baptist Church, Alexandria, Virginia
I’ll be using Scripture and the word of God to try to answer the question, How do we dare live in a world where evil is so inescapable? I want to shape it by sharing that what happened is a blatant act of evil. When innocent lives are taken on sacred ground, you have to see the demonic element that is involved in that. I hope to lift our members’ eyes above simply demonizing one man and realize there is a pervasive evil in the world. Every day we turn on the news and hear of another shooting — police shooting, gang shooting, ISIS, a lone gunman.
How do we live in a world where you can neither predict nor prepare, or even sometimes protect yourself from that evil? I’m still wrestling with some of the answers to that, but I know one of them would be that we must choose to be aware, but not to live afraid; that evil wins when we drastically change our lifestyle because we’re afraid.
Satpal Singh, Founding Trustee, Sikh Council for Interfaith Relations
When the shooting at Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, occurred, the entire nation and the entire world stood by the Sikhs. Within hours, Sikh organizations received messages of support and solidarity from hundreds of religious, political and social organizations from all around the world. Today we all stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which has become the target of the same hatred and venom that keeps engulfing us again and again in the name of religion, race and a myriad other divisions. We pray for the peace of those who have left us, and for their families. We pray for the peace of mind of the perpetrator of such a hateful act, and for the peace of mind for all those who suffer from hate and prejudice.
At the same time, we refuse to succumb to the tactics of the terrorists and the supremacists alike, who either hope to provoke a reaction in kind and start a cycle of back and forth violence, or even fancy initiating a civil war, as Mr. Roof wanted to do. We must strengthen our efforts to combat the hatred as well as the fear evoked by such actions. We all must stand together to fight against such injustice to our African American brothers and sisters as they have been subjected to for centuries, and are being subjected to even this day.
It is time for all of us to reinvigorate our efforts to banish hatred from our society and to bring harmony among all the sections of our society, irrespective of the divisions that have been created among us. Let this act of hatred strengthen our resolve to spread the message of love and harmony that all our faiths profess. We must all remind ourselves, and our congregations, that blood has no religion. It has no race, no caste, no nationality and no political ideology. And it has no skin color.
Rev. Natalie Mitchem, Pastor, Cavalry AME Church, Philadelphia
Our hearts are broken and many may still be asking why this happen in a church. The church is a place where people come for worship, prayer, direction, self-reflection, healing and to sing praises to our Heavenly Father. Today we are reminded that God in Heaven, our Heavenly Father, provides the peace through Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit that surpasses our understanding. God is love, and the Bible urges us to overcome evil with love. Calvary AME Church has security measures in place and we will review our security measures. However, we will not operate in fear, but with power and love, as stated in the Bible.
Rev. Jonathan Malone, Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church, East Greenwich, Rhode Island
I believe that racism is an American problem, that the narrative of us versus them is prevalent in our country’s ethos, and this narrative insidiously seeps into our consciousness, even in our sheltered New England town. Racism is still a real issue and we still have a lot of work to do.
I call on us all to do the hard work of self-examination. Ask yourself what stories, what narratives have you accepted as true that may have racist undertones. When you see someone who does not look like you, does not dress like you, does not talk like you, what assumptions do you bring up about that person? We all are shaped and informed by our context, and we need to again and again challenge the narrative that we have assumed to be true.
I ask you to speak out against those small, subtle overtures of racism that you may encounter on a daily basis. The joke that is said in the hall, the comment made only for your ears, the statement about “those people” all are sprouts from the seeds of racism and need to be cut down where and when they happen.
Contributions have been edited for length and clarity.