In June 2015 my wife and I were on a mission trip with students at the church I previously served as youth pastor. The trip had all the makings of a typical youth excursion; students leaving things behind, the organizations we partnered with falling through in some areas, and of course having to change a flat tire on the church van (I swear, I changed a tire on that van once, maybe even, twice, a year for THREE years).
On the evening of June 17th, we sat down to have dinner together. Some students were playing board games, some checking their phones, while others were watching the movie Selma which I had brought along. About halfway through the film, my wife’s phone started buzzing. There had been a mass shooting at a church in Charleston, SC. Social media began to explode with accounts of what happened at Mother Emanuel AME. I grabbed my phone and told students to do the same as they were informed to contact their parents to let them know we were alright.
You see, we were in Charleston when the shootings happened.
Proximity offers an experience like no other. We had heard sirens go by in the home we had rented for the week yet thought nothing of it. As we tuned into national news outlets we began to see places and street corners we had just walked on hours before. While phones were being scrolled by everyone, the movie Selma continued to play in the background depicting the struggle and pursuit of racial equality during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Even in that very moment, I saw the significance of what was unfolding; we were watching history and also smack in the middle of it.
My God, how far have we as a nation of people really come?
Hearing the tragic news of what took place at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Saturday brought my memories of Charleston that summer flooding back. I remember the initial fear, the anger, the need to want to do something. I wanted to go out into the streets and be present as a faith leader, yet I had students with me and my responsibility to them took priority. All my wife Lauren and I could do was watch the story unfold as we stayed up late into the night. The next morning we were to scheduled to stop into a local charitable organization for a tour before heading back to eastern NC. I notified them early the next morning to let them know we were not able to come.
Instead, I decided to take the students to a memorial service just a few blocks away from Mother Emanuel at Morris Brown AME church instead.
I could say a lot about what we all saw and experienced there that day. Speakers, the songs being sung in and outside the sanctuary, the patrolling bomb squad and security, the tears that flowed around us and by us. Yet, when I think back to this horrific display of racism and white supremacy I push myself to remember the scene inside the Morris Brown sanctuary that morning. I saw clerical collars of all shapes and sizes next to kippahs. I watched imams embrace rabbis while Christians ministers waited for their chance to do the same. I watched one of the biggest men I have ever seen openly sob in front of me. I saw a people, from all different faith backgrounds, lament together. It’s the closest thing to the kingdom of heaven I believe I’ve ever come in contact with.
Charleston 2015, 9 victims
Sutherland 2017, 26 victims
Pittsburgh 2018, 11
(Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas)
In the wake of another shooting, the talks of how this could have been prevented skyrocket to the surface. People huddle up to their proposed ideology and accompanying collective group and hold fast to their believed corrective action. Some call for gun law reform while others cry for more guns. Some call for action while others call for conversation. Some point to the obvious underlying tension of systemic oppression while others say we as a nation just need to move on from problems like racism and antisemitism because they are perceived to be in the past. This nation doesn’t want to admit it has a problem, and meanwhile, victims bodies continue to pile up.
I see a lot of talking. I see a lot of agendas. I see biased reporting. I see an unwillingness to hear another side or experience that doesn’t line up with one's own understanding. I see police officers at the entrances of places of worship and wonder if this is the new normal going forward (and how much this saddens me). I see victim blaming by political leaders.
I see these tragedies as the only time people come together.
The sad reality is maybe these moments are the only times we as a nation can feel something towards each other. Maybe we’ve reached a level of apathy that has pushed us off the charts into a realm where the ability to love anything, especially those we consider “others”, is next to impossible. And even when we do, these moments are so compartmentalized we are forced to process and move on as quickly as possible so that we might be ready to do it again a few weeks later. Maybe that’s why modern White America has such a hard time understanding transgenerational trauma because it forces us to linger and reflect on inhuman acts committed on African slaves in the name of Manifest Destiny. If you spend enough time reflecting you might start to realize this isn’t “their problem”, but “your problem” too. What I’m asking is not a call to come to terms, but a call for reconciliation. And it shouldn’t take a white anti-semitic shooter and 11 dead Jewish brothers and sisters to realize this.
Saturday acts reminded me of Charleston. It reminded me of what systems of oppression spewing hatefully bent rhetoric propagating elitism can do. It reminded me of our country’s lack or inability to see itself of fault and sin.
It makes me think our greatest sin is our lack of empathy toward each other.
Lord, we have so much work to do...and so much to answer for.