The emotions--grief, anger, resilience, hope, resistance, love--were as palpable as the muggy heat on this July morning.
Walking down Calhoun Street, named to honor a defender of slavery, John C. Calhoun, we looked for a steeple, of which there were many, to guide us to our destination. Finally, we arrived at the now unmistakable white faced building with a tall steeple and a proud people called Mother Emanuel AME Church whose slogan on the bulletin reads: “Unashamedly Traditional, Surprisingly Progressive.” Outside her walls were symbols--flowers and candles, posters of white and black hands fist bumping over a caption, “One Skin,” banners with hanging pens inviting one to add a name to those who care--baring the aforementioned sentiments. It was the setting of a vigil where people come to mourn and pray in the heart of downtown Charleston.
We navigated passed tourists taking pictures in order to ascend the stairs leading to the church sanctuary doors. The place which seats some 400 was filled with people who squeezed into its dark-wood cushion-backed pews. Most of those in attendance were familiar with the unairconditioned space as they waved their bulletins to fan them, rocked back and forth to the rhythm of the liturgy, and stood and waved as part of the lively worship; but, a significantly large number of us were new to the place, as we had come to be present and join in the grieving process, and the journey to healing and reconciliation. My family and I were among these hundreds of newcomers who gathered to worship, delighted in the youth praise dancers, sang with a choir and soloists, kneeled to pray together, and were challenged by the word from the Book of Esther given to the preacher, “you gotta speak up!” and share the difference making good news of the gospel.
There was no denying this was a community in mourning, still needing to heal, but it was also a community carrying on with the business of being a gospel people--welcoming the stranger, praying for the sick, serving in the city, seeking to be a beacon of light. The interim pastor, the Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff, Sr., filling shoes lost in a tragedy, was boldly at ease with the congregation and guests. Some guests were invited to come and offer a word to the congregation, including three representatives from various families who were gathered for reunion--two of whom sang solos spontaneously!--as well as an elected official from the Commonwealth of Virginia who joined others in offering words of condolences and encouragement by citing scripture. I loved to hear the minister negotiate with the congregation about how long his sermon might be as the numerous seemingly spontaneous acts were proposed and later agreed upon, "If ya'll give me twelve minutes to let me allow this young man to sing, I'll take 12 minutes from my sermon." It was a beautiful solo by a young man, and elder, visiting from a Church of God in Christ. This was a youth led service, meaning the various aspects of the service were led by the church's young people.
Ruby Gene and Zia stood mesmerized by the young girls liturgical dance praise team.
During the time of prayer, worshippers streamed down the aisles to gather around the altar as the minister uttered a litany promises of God from scripture. Just when most had cleared the altar, a bent over elderly woman, surely a church Mother, dressed elegantly in a blue dress and hat, was escorted by two other women to the altar, where she knelt down to pray, and as she did so, the minister placed his hands on her head and lingered to pray with her as well.
The sermon was inspired by Esther and Mordecai's willingness to speak up during a threatening time (Esther 4:14-17). Using that underlying theme, the minister encouraged all of us to speak up when we see troubling circumstances, when we see people in need of prayer, when we see injustices, "you gotta speak up"--as it may make all the difference for, even save the lives of, your friends, your neighbors, this country, this world.
About halfway through the two and a half hour worship service, Trasie took the girls down to the basement/Fellowship Hall where they could be less confined (it was hot and hard to keep them still at this point). The worship service is broadcast on a video stream into the basement and chairs and tables are set up for people to worship there in an airconditioned less formal setting. I joined them after the worship service was over, and saw the community beginning to set up for a meal they would be having later, which explained the fried chicken I smelled as I walked down the balcony stairs! Completed in 1891, this Fellowship Hall has been home to countless prayer meetings, bible studies, and seniors gatherings, and seen many bellies filled; and is also the place where the Emanuel 9 lost their lives in one horrific act. It was humbling to witness the welcome and resilience of those most affected by such a tragedy, and join with thousands of others to offer our prayers for healing and reconciliation, and speak up the name, which has come to encompass so much good and inspiration for so many people in this church and community, the name of Jesus-- the Prince of Peace.
Ruby Gene begged for a picture to be taken with Jordan, a member of the Emanuel AME Church Praise Dancers, July 26, 2015--the Fellowship Hall in the lower level of the church.