In the last several weeks, we have seen two extremes unfolding in the saga of race relations in America. On the one hand, was the amusing, but at the same time sad and puzzling story of Rachel Dolezal, who, apparently empathized with African Americans so much, that she slowly began to take on the identity of a black woman. However, her story was forced off the front pages by yet another signal event in this country’s bedeviled relationship with race.
This time, the script was more familiar. A young disenfranchised white male who apparently had been spending his time prowling the Internet’s racist sites and imbibing raw, unfiltered racism, decided that it was his duty to incite a racial war. Forget the fact that in the more than four centuries since the introduction of African slaves, there has never been a war between the black and white races on our shores. A large part of that has been because of the resilience and the faith of African Americans.
The church has long been considered the most important institution in the black community. Writing for The Root, Peniel E. Joseph, founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, said:
“The black church’s radical humanism harbored a fierce resistance to slavery, a love of freedom, and a thirst for citizenship and equality that made it a hotbed of internal debates, discussions and controversies over the best course for black liberation in America… After slavery, the strength of the black church made it a target of racist vigilantes, with white supremacists turning a religious symbol, the cross, into a burning icon of racial terror.”
The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the country’s oldest black Protestant denomination and remains one of its most prominent. An outgrowth of a civic group called the Free African Society, Methodist evangelist Richard Allen founded the first AME church in 1794. When his segregated congregation in Philadelphia went as far as pulling black parishioners from their knees when praying, Allen knew it was time to establish safe, secure places where people of African descent could freely worship.
AME churches thrived in the Northeast and Midwest, but also eventually stretched below the Mason Dixon line. At one time, the dream was to remove African Americans from the US and to take them to established black homelands in Liberia and Haiti, but those plans eventually were foiled. (The denomination does now have branches in Liberia, Sierre Leone, and South Africa.)
My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all grew up in the pews of the AME church. I come from a long line of AME ministers, and although my parents were non-observant, the imprint of my father’s AME past was passed on to him and his three siblings. Raised in a strict home as PKs, pastor’s kids, they were expected to achieve and serve. I see the influence of their AME upbringing in their striving for excellence, concern for social justice, and passion for education.
I saw glimpses of that ambition and commitment to service in the victim’s obituaries as well: distinguished graduates of historically black colleges, active in community organizations, faithful ministers of Emanuel AME Church.
I recall hearing stories from my relatives about NAACP meetings held in the church basement and the traveling civil rights leaders who visited. My grandfather, a presiding elder overseeing AME churches in Baltimore, ended his career at Washington DC’s Turner AME Church. Decades later, the congregation still remembers his legacy with a bio on their website:
“The Reverend Clarence Clyde Ferguson … was a spiritual and dynamic leader with foresight, wisdom and great pastoral ability. Under his leadership, Turner continued to grow and to develop rapidly. A parsonage, located at 509 P Street, N. W. was purchased. The church grew from a mission to a station charge. Reverend Ferguson served until his death in 1946.”
I think about how the late pastor of Mother Emanuel, Clementa Pinckney, will be remembered. Sadly, he too served until his death—at just 41.
But after months and years of declaring #BlackLivesMatter, why has this event been the one to stir more white Americans as well as blacks and their progressive allies?
Understandably, the Charleston shooting hits especially close to home, symbolically and emotionally, for African Americans like me.
Many African Americans, even those raised in the North, have ties to South Carolina. More than half of black Americans have ancestors who came as slaves through the state’s coastal ports including Charleston, according to historians.
Within my family, there are black Fergusons in South Carolina to this day. (Our branch migrated to North Carolina; my father was born in Wilmington. I grew up in New York, where my parents, Southern transplants, met and married.)
Even more significant, though, is Mother Emanuel itself. A historic black church, it represents both a force against American slavery and oppression and a beacon signifying the rights of African Americans to worship freely.
When I heard that Pinckney and the others were killed in their church basement, I immediately flashed back to my own memories of Wednesday night Bible studies, of being excited to welcome any new face who came.The young white man who visited Emanuel AME apparently considered it his duty to incite a racial war. We know, however, that our battle ultimately is spiritual, not physical. We know that the enemy comes to rob, kill, and destroy, but that Jesus came to bring life and life to the full.
I watched grieving in both black and white communities on CNN in the aftermath. Commentators marveled at the joy in the worship service, attended by both South Carolina’s black and white communities. I saw the mutual comforting and the tears. I heard the church bells that rolled across the historic city of Charleston in mourning for nine lives lost.
It brought to mind this Scripture: “Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17, 21)
This time, the killing of black Americans going about their daily business, I suspect, became personal for white believers. Instead of a thug, they saw a pastor; instead of unfamiliar, possibly suspect blacks, they saw brothers and sisters in the Lord gathering for Bible study.
I pray they can remember how that feels—to assume the “other” to be one of them—next time an injustice occurs. That instinct can be a first step to bridging a divide, to loving their neighbor, to begin healing racial wounds.
My prayer is that brothers and sisters in Christ, be they white, black, brown, or any other color, would put down our differences at the foot of the cross. For as South Carolinians of every stripe demonstrated in the last several days, and as we sing in our churches: “He is our peace; He has broken down every wall.”
(A version of this article originally appeared in the Her.menuetics blog on Christianity Today)