Above: St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church service in San Bernardino.
“Too often in America the legacy ideas and beliefs of the past are holding us back from the promise of the future.” -Tech Entrepreneur Aaron Levie
On Father’s Day I went to church. Not because my dad was there and I wanted to spend the morning with him – his medical condition keeps him in most days, so he worships in the den at home. But before our traditional Father’s Day dinner at the house, my mother invited me to join her at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in San Bernardino, the church my family has called home for almost 45 years.
I resisted at first. It just wasn’t in my plans for the morning. But as I sat at home watching the coverage of the Sunday morning service at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the site of the mass shooting just days earlier, I was compelled to attend.
I grew-up in the AME Church…I served on the usher board, was a leader in the YPD (Young People’s Division), sang in the choir, and was even a junior stewardess. My early spiritual life was shaped by the historic church and my worldview has clearly been influenced by it.
Founded in Philadelphia in 1787 by former slave Richard Allen and others, the church remains true to its original mission to minister to the social, spiritual, and physical development of all people with a vision to “seek out and save the lost and serve the needy.” AME’s are in 39 countries, on 5 continents, and have 21 active bishops who govern the connectional churches. The two largest and oldest Inland Empire congregations are Riverside’s Allen Chapel AME that just celebrated its 140th anniversary last month and St. Paul AME in San Bernardino, celebrating its 111th anniversary next Sunday.
After the shooting of the “Emanuel 9” – Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Myra Thompson – and amidst the grieving of their lost loved ones, family members saw the shooter Dylann Roof as one of those lost souls in need of saving. And through their tears and in the depths of their grief they forgave him, even though he has yet to ask for their forgiveness.
Sitting in the congregation on Sunday reminded me that I have spent my life surrounded by people like those families – individuals of tremendous faith, resilience, and love. And I knew just what kind of people the Charleston community lost in the massacre as I sat during altar call and surveyed the congregation, my eyes resting on the faces I have seen grow older and wiser over the past forty years…Mr. Claudell Curry, Mrs. Thelma Earl, Mrs. Mildred Geiger…and others. The lay leaders who are the real heart of the church. Those who, for generations, have tithed and donated their time and talents to the little church on the corner of 21st and Herrington.
There was a spirit of defiance and unity that morning among the St. Paul congregants. There was no room for fear; only the need to save the lost and serve the needy.
And while reflecting on the Emanuel 9, Dylann Roof, and the congregants of my family’s home church, I started thinking about Race in America. Our history. Our memory. Our legacy. And how we continue to be haunted by the ghosts of the past and stained by the sins of our forefathers.
Dylann Roof was born in 1994, yet when you read what is now being called his “manifesto”, the language expresses historical and archaic beliefs on race and racial differences developed centuries before there was ever a Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman, an incident that served as a catalyst for Roof’s submersion in a racist ideology. The 2,400-word manifesto on White Supremacy typifies the spiritual and emotional legacy of racism we continue to pass down to future generations, forcing us all to bear witness to the inescapable cycle of hate and forgiveness.
I’m not a person who is of the opinion that America is “seething with racism” to quote a commentary in a recent newspaper opinion page. But I don’t align myself with the extremist views held by the editors of the Wall Street Journal who published an editorial on the shooting saying: “Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.” There are too many examples to dispute that uninformed claim.
In an interview on Sunday morning’s Face the Nation, South Carolina State Senator Tim Scott said we need a “robust conversation about race relations in this country.” But we need more than a conversation; we need real education. And we need to be empowered by that education. We need an education that is not locked in the dynamic of the ‘victor vs. ‘victim’, or ‘Black vs. White’, or ‘master vs. slave’. We need, instead, to teach future generations about those who saw – and continue to see – beyond the systems that have been designed to control and oppress, and embrace the promise of a future full of unity and free of hate. And as in the mission of the AME church, we must strive to save the lost.