Saturday, June 20, 2015

Campbell Chapel, African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bluffton, South Carolina. A.M.E.

I went alone. I had no idea if I'd be the only white woman there.
But it didn't matter.

I don't often go to church. A wedding or a funeral maybe but, while I believe in God, belonging to a church has never been a big deal.

That didn't matter either. I had to go.

This was the Campbell Chapel of the A.M.E. Church in Bluffton, South Carolina. Clementa Pinckney used to be a pastor here. He was also a State Legislator in my district, although I’d never met him. He was a man of faith. He was a Democrat. He was black. He was 41 years old.

He was murdered with 8 others in a place of sanctuary. A place of hope. A place of love. A sanctuary is a place of safety, protection, shelter, immunity, and asylum. This is an understanding most cultures share across the timelines of history, of races, and of nations. It is a line that isn’t often breached. On June 17th, in Charleston, it was utterly defiled.

Two days later, at noon, the Bluffton church had black and white police officers working security together and directing traffic. Cars were parked everywhere. All kinds. From trucks, to old Junkers, to midrange SUVs, to costly sports cars, and luxury sedans. Income inequality didn’t matter.

The service was getting underway on time, but there were still a few of us in the hall. We filed in after the opening prayer and we lined the walls. Soon, a black man appeared with folding chairs and set them up for us. He smiled. I thanked him and sat. There was a heavyset older, white man dressed casually in shorts and a ball cap next to me. He removed his hat. It was a sign of a respect.

The service was a series of prayers from many pastors from the surrounding churches, both black and white. The prayers were interspersed with hymns and psalms. The Republican state legislator, a white man, spoke. The congregation clapped. The mayor of the town, a white woman spoke. She cried. The congregation clapped harder.

Psalm 121 was one of the Psalms read. Back before religion was banned from school, my 7th grade teacher, a battle-ax known as Mrs. Smith, made the entire class memorize it as part of our graduation ceremony. Or maybe it was Easter. But I knew every word thanks to her. I thought of those days as I recited it. Never in a million years would Mrs. Smith have guessed that I would have brought her with me to this Church on such a day. But I did.

Once, when I was about 7 years old, my father whipped me for playing with a little girl in a pretty, pink dress. Her family had just moved in across the street. She was black. I didn't think I deserved a whipping. I didn't think it was fair. To her or to me. That whipping didn't affect me the way it was intended. My rebellion against injustice started that day. Pink will always remain my favorite color. I never knew her name but I brought her with me to the church, too.

When I was seated, the first prayer made me cry. I had brought an old, embroidered handkerchief of my grandmother's just in case. She was born in Liberty County, near Savannah, Georgia. I brought her to church with me also.

As I tried to get myself mopped up, I thought about my friends, some on Facebook, some in my neighborhood, and some from grade school. Some of them will go to their churches. Some will emote on Facebook and Twitter. Some will ignore it because it's all so damned ugly. Except it shouldn't be ignored.

And there is no great loss without some small silver lining. We must always look for that.

So I went to church and I brought memories, friends, distant voices, hopes, and prayers with me to lay on the alter. Because, people, no matter how you identify yourself:  black, white, male, female, Democrat, Libertarian, Republican, atheist, believer, old, young, rich, or poor, you can't hijack hope. I refuse to allow mine to be taken from me. Those filled with hate or an agenda, you can't program me with your agenda and tell me whom to hate or whom to love. You won’t stop me from standing up and speaking out. You can't send me to fight in a war that exists only in your paltry mind. You will never stop me from standing up for the innocent and I should never be told that I have to agree with them on order to stand up for them. You will never stop me from being strong enough to care for those I don't understand. I refuse to hate people who are guilty of nothing except being different than me. I will not stay away just because honor, respect, and reverence have become unpopular. I will not abandon my friend in order to be true to my own creed for that would indeed falsify my creed. I cannot be made into less of a person over the acts or behavior of someone else.

I went to church to stand up for the innocent and to represent, by proxy, all those voices that share this creed but could not be there. Death, now, has silenced many wise voices. I will lift up my tear-damped face for them. And I will not be silent.

And after all, though I went to church by myself, I was never alone. Neither in place nor in determination. We sang "This little light of mine" and smiles began to appear on faces. See a local report on the service here.

And the silver lining? It surely appeared there in that sanctuary filled with brave hearts.

As the first psalm was read, a black man in the nearby pew turned to me with a Bible in his hands. He had found the right place and handed it to me.

He didn't have to do that. He had every reason to ignore me. He had every reason to pretend I wasn't there.

I looked him in the eye as I thanked him and he smiled. He didn’t have to share that Book but then again, I didn’t have to bother to show up to this church. It was one, small, perfect moment of understanding, largeness, and accords. Strangers in a moment of instant agreement, a black man and a white woman silently agreed…This will not beat us.

And now, I have a question. Will it beat you?

Having read my thoughts and identified with many of them as you read along, will it change how you feel if I were to tell you I’m a Republican? Because if it does, that, right there is the kind of thinking that created this horrible reality.

Never hate anyone like that. Not ever.
We can all choose to be better than that.