I recently had the opportunity to visit Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and to attend Sunday worship there.
My visit was a powerful reminder of the faithfulness, courage and resilience witnessed in the legacies and ongoing religious life of many historic African-American congregations across America — including here in Lancaster.
I drove away from the church with echoes of the morning’s Scripture reading from Psalm 34 continuing to reverberate in my heart:
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,
and rescues them from all their troubles.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.
As readers will remember, Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, became a household name in 2015 when nine congregants were shot and killed in the church fellowship hall while attending a weekly Bible study.
Many of us have been inspired by the moral courage that survivors have shown by voicing public expressions of forgiveness for the white supremacist shooter. Recall what the daughter of one of the victims told the shooter at a court hearing just days after the massacre: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
For some of us in Lancaster County this was especially poignant testimony, bringing back to mind sentiments expressed by Amish families after the Nickel Mines school shooting.
Such forgiveness certainly requires exemplary strength and depth of character. But this is not the only storyline from Mother Emanuel worthy of our attention. Limiting our focus to the theme of forgiveness may cause us to overlook the many ways Mother Emanuel has empowered its members to challenge white supremacy and injustice throughout its history.
The founding of the church was itself such a challenge. Emanuel was the first AME church formed in the Deep South, in 1818, at a time when it was illegal in Charleston for blacks to learn to read or to constitute the majority of a church’s membership. Within a couple of years of its founding, white Charlestonians raided the church several times and arrested more than 140 members.
A few years later one of its founding members, Denmark Vesey, was accused of plotting a slave revolt, secretly tried and executed along with more than 30 others. Angry whites burned the church to the ground.
Yet the people of Mother Emanuel persevered, meeting in secret for decades until the end of the Civil War.
In 1969, after her husband's assassination, Coretta Scott King led a march to the church in support of striking workers in Charleston. According to the church’s website, those at the church faced “bayonet-wielding members of the South Carolina National Guard; the church’s pastor and 900 demonstrators were arrested.”
While the 2015 shooting was the most recent and most nationally publicized act of terror at Mother Emanuel, it was by no means the first time local whites responded with violence to acts of resistance and self-determination — to acts of righteousness — by church members and their allies.
We must honor the whole of this legacy. The story of Mother Emanuel is a many-layered history of courage, resilience and faithfulness in face of horrific violence and evil.
As former President Barack Obama observed in his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor killed in the tragedy: “Over the course of centuries, black churches served as hush harbors, where slaves could worship in safety, praise houses, where their free descendants could gather and shout ‘Hallelujah,’ ... rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad, bunkers for the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.
“They have been and continue to be community centers, where we organize for jobs and justice, places of scholarship and network, places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter.”
This is the legacy of congregations of color across America. Not just the story of Mother Emanuel, but also the story of places right here in Lancaster such as Bethel AME.
Bethel itself has a rich history of more than two centuries of courageous and faithful witness in face of injustice.
And it’s the history of congregations like Bright Side Baptist in Lancaster. And Ebenezer Baptist.
Visiting Mother Emanuel reminded me how vital such history is to the tapestry of American religion, and how vital these congregations are in teaching us how to resist injustice, how to practice courage in the face of violence, and how to exhibit moral leadership in the face of acts of evil.
Perhaps you, too, could benefit from such a visit. What lessons might be awaiting you if you simply showed up at Bethel, Bright Side or Ebenezer on a Sunday morning?
Chad Martin works for Partners for Sacred Places in Philadelphia and lives with his family in southeast Lancaster city. Email: email@example.com.