Charleston Strong

August 6, 2015 by

“Man, it’s hot,” I said to my wife as we exited the Charleston Airport to catch a taxi. Throughout our days in Charleston the only things warmer than the sun were the hearts of people we met, filled with love and friendship. We had come to this sweltering southern city in the aftermath of the June 17 murder of nine people in the historic Mother Emanuel Church, not knowing quite what to expect. And the wounds were still raw; that evening was still seared into the minds of the people as they recounted to us exactly what they were doing at the moment it happened. But we felt little, if any, bitterness, divisiveness, or anger. A frequently-used word was “solidarity;” we heard (and sensed it) all over the city. We were often thanked for coming down from New York to stand in solidarity with them. Charlestonians wanted to use an act of evil, intended to divide people, to instead draw them closer together. They wanted, regardless of race or religion, to stay united.

Even though the shooting took place weeks earlier, in front of the Mother Emanuel Church the sidewalk was still full of flowers, wreaths, Scripture verses, and crosses. Needless to say, crowds also came to stand in front of the church, mostly standing in silence. As we stood there too, I wondered how many prayers had gone up from outside and inside that church since the attack. Assuming they were prayers for peace and forgiveness, it seemed that the prayers were effective; we noticed, in and on different buildings, messages of hope and love; signs that the “Charleston 9” wouldn’t be forgotten. “Charleston Strong” was a message not only emblazoned on shirts, but practiced.

During our visit, Don Felder, a family friend, reached out to his relative Joseph Postell, who serves as a Presiding Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina, and he arranged for us to meet with Dr. Goff, the interim pastor of Mother Emanuel. Both Postell and Goff were good friends of the late Rev. Clemente Pinckney, pastor of Mother Emanuel and perhaps the most well-known victim. Our meeting took place in Dr. Goff’s office quite near to where the shooting had occurred during a Bible study. The time that we spent together passed quickly. But we didn’t really talk about the violence; we talked about forgiveness.

At one point Dr. Goff said, “As fellow believers it’s important for us to realize that when we forgive we’re not by ourselves; Christ promised to never leave us, so we’re strengthened by that knowledge, that we’re not alone. Because if we were alone, with certain anger and with being downright mad, we’d end up doing something that is not Christ-like, but He’s with us – the Word says, ‘He promised never to leave us or forsake us.’ And that strengthens us as we’re on this journey. Because if we are only flesh, flesh may respond in a different way, but when you have the spirit of God within you, something within you ‘holdeth the reins,’ as it says in one of the hymns of the church.. And so if we know better, we can do better.”

It was evident that the suffering experienced in Charleston was the reason such a message came forth. As we continued to talk about forgiveness, Postell quoted words from Eberhard Arnold which he thought appropriate: “It is not right to try to remove all suffering, nor is it right to endure it stoically. Suffering can be used, turned to good account. What makes a life happy or unhappy is not outward circumstances, but our inner attitude to them.” The inner attitude of the members of Mother Emanuel Church was clearly the correct one; an attitude of forgiveness and not of anger.

Since the shooting on June 17, many people have attended the Sunday services at Mother Emanuel Church as a way of “bearing one another’s burdens,” as it says in Galatians. The church members welcomed all who came, at least those who came wanting to pray that God’s peace and God’s spirit come down to, and remain with, the victims’ families. In the midst of their pain, peace came from reaching out to others. Peace came from that welcoming spirit of solidarity we felt during our trip. As I sat in that church, I didn’t think about how many different races and nationalities were attending (and there were many); I only thought that we are all one race, the human race.

As my wife and I headed back to New York and reflected on our days in Charleston, we sensed that we had experienced an advancement of God’s Kingdom. We met people who put into practice the commandment of Christ to “love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” It’s not an easy commandment, but it is the right commandment. Please pray for the members of Mother Emanuel and the residents of Charleston that they continue to have strength to follow these words.

Malcolm and Michelle Johnson travelled from the Bellvale Bruderhof in Chester, NY, to Charleston, SC and the surrounding area, for 18 days. Shortly after they returned, Presiding Elder Joseph Postell of the Lancaster District AME Church 7th visited the Woodcrest Bruderhof in Rifton, NY. An excerpt follows.

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