Blacks in America have a long, rich history of holding prayer meetings. In the days of slavery Blacks gathered secretly, whispering prayers under kettles and muffling their voices to avoid punishment. Slaveholders, even religious ones, feared the prayers of slaves. While outwardly devout plantation owners quoted scripture to hold men captive, they also worried the slaves would pray for freedom and God might just turn his ear to listen.
During the Civil Rights movement the prayer meeting was the place where Blacks gathered to find strength. The lack of justice created by segregation and the pain from lack of political and social progress pushed Blacks to find justice on their knees. The court of heaven was always open and a man, woman or child of any color could come before the throne of grace freely and without discrimination. In the days of Jim Crow and institutionalized racism when Black voices were being stifled on earth, simultaneously they rang clear and true in heaven. The secret place of prayer gave Blacks power and access to a supernatural being stronger than any judge, more just than a national leader and more compassionate than their closest friend. While the marches in Selma and boycotts in Birmingham caught the attention of the public, the prayer meetings captured and arrested the heart of God.
Today in America we are a nation mourning the deaths of the Reverend and Senator Clementa Pinckney and 8 beautiful souls from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. In a racially motivated act, a demonized 21 year old man took the lives of these dear children of God during a time of Bible study and prayer. On Sunday, June 21st, the church bravely opened its doors and held the first service after the terrible massacre. During a passionate sermon the church’s interim pastor, Rev. Norvel Goff, said these words:
"A lot of people expected us to do something strange and to break out in a riot. Well, they just don't know us. We are people of faith."
Those honest words were backed up by the remarkable actions of the church, family and loved ones of those slain. In a YouTube video that has been viewed by millions we can witness the power of forgiveness on display. The families of the victims offered instant forgiveness to the killer, not because he was deserving of it but, because they believe in a love that is stronger than hate. Their love for Jesus compels them to follow the parable in Matthew 18 where Jesus declares our Heavenly Father will not forgive us if we do not forgive our brothers.
As cases of police brutality against Black Americans become common place in the media, an old quote from civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr has come into our discussions again. King said “A riot is the language of the unheard.” King, the leader of a movement that embraced non-violence never excused the actions of those who looted and destroyed property in their rage. King simply understood the circumstances that drove a seemingly powerless people to rage. In our recent history riots broke out in Ferguson after the police officer was acquitted in the shooting death of an unarmed black teen, Mike Brown. Businesses were burned down in Baltimore when Freddie Gray was killed at the hands of the police. An estimated $9 million in damages came from the Baltimore riots alone. As many watched these events play out, we like Dr. King wrestled to understand the pain while condemning the violence and calling for its end.
The circumstances of injustice were different in the shooting in South Carolina. The motive this time was undeniably clear, an obvious case of racism complete with a manifesto and the killer shown in pictures wearing racist paraphernalia. The police and authorities in this case were solely there to help, not to harm. Beyond those details the main thing that set this tragedy apart from the others is the response of the ones who remained. Now, I don’t for a second think people weren’t praying after the loss of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner or Mike Brown. We know peaceful protests were organized and thousands marched in the streets of Baltimore. Sadly the news gave more coverage to the riots than they did to unified people walking together for justice. However, the response of the people in Charleston is still unique and remarkable because of the way they quickly owned this painful situation and lead the nation in responding. Mike Brown’s stepfather also condemned violence but on camera was heard telling the crowd to burn the city down. Over and over he screams, “Burn this b**** down!” My heart is not to judge grieving parents in their pain. It was completely heartbreaking to watch Mike Brown’s mother weep and share her anger over the verdict. God only knows what any of us would say and do in an hour like that. The natural human response is to seek vengeance for what was taken. That’s why people yelled “f*** the police” as Mike Brown’s mother wept. Yet the natural response, although understood is not always the best way forward.
The saints in Charleston had a different response. Some might think it is because their killer was imprisoned and a level of justice will be served. Yet a prison cell can never take away the immense pain these people are feeling. The loss of lives can not be replaced. I think their response was evidence of the love of God in their hearts and the strength of their commitment to follow His word. In the midst of their pain the people of Charleston said, “This is the way, walk in it.” We are choosing forgiveness and we ask you to follow our lead. Thankfully, that’s exactly what many in the public have done. Prayer meetings were held not only in front of the AME church, but across the country. Two were held last week in my tiny New England city. News reports say some drove 6-8 hours just to pray in front of the church or to join the service. The language of protest against police brutality was “Hands up, Don’t Shoot,” and the language surrounding this tragedy was “Kneel down, don’t hate.”
The shooter went to ‘Holy City’ on purpose and picked the historic church because he had a strategy. He wanted to start a race war and divide a nation. What he didn’t understand is that when you walk into 'Holy City' and step into a church, you are encountering a holy people. These holy people will not respond the way you expect them too. The world can understand that riots are a normal response to the pain of systemic racism and injustice. What the world can’t wrap its mind around is an abnormal, supernatural response to injustice. The comments sections under articles announcing the family members’ attitude of forgiveness are full of perplexed people. Some are wondering why the families would forgive. Some are questioning how the families could forgive so quickly. Others are thankful that the families did forgive, and some say they would never do the same if in their position. The families of the Charleston 9 forgave ‘quickly’ not because it was just the right thing to do or a religious obligation. I believe the families forgave quickly because that is who they are. They follow a forgiving God who brings justice to the afflicted, avenges his elect and fights battles for the ones he loves. I believe they knew their hatred and unforgiveness could do nothing to bring back the ones they loved. Yet with their testimony of forgiveness they could change the world we live in.
Charleston is an example to us. They are showing us a way to move forward. They, like the slaves of old who uttered prayers and the civil rights leaders who stopped to kneel on a bridge in Selma, are showing us a better way. The question remains, 'What is the church to do in times like these?'
Maybe we keep on doing what we’ve done before. Perhaps in light of racism, hate, murder and madness we continue to pray. Yes, we take actions, seek justice, change policies, and in practical ways bring change. First and foremost, and above all we pray. What if we kept doing what the shooter sought to stop the congregants of AME church from ever doing again? What if we stood in the place of the slain Rev and said, “You didn’t finish your prayer so I will finish it for you”, “your Bible fell to the ground so I will pick up mine.” What if we gathered not just on a Sunday or on a Wednesday but everyday with our family, before our altars, in our pews to petition God? That may not be as exciting as a protest, but it’s sure to change a nation.
As children of God, we may suffer injustice, but we are never unheard before Heaven.