I recall ignorantly walking around downtown pursuing some errands whose purposes now hang somewhere in the vortex of irrelevance when I came across the Mother Emanuel Church. This was shortly after the act of terrorism that claimed the lives of nine black Christians. There were news crews, flowers, and all manner of people talking. I made my way onto the sidewalk and faced the church. I knelt down and began to pray. Then I began to weep uncontrollably.
This is where I find myself now.
It has been three years since hate and racism took the lives of nine African Americans who did nothing but welcome a stranger into their midst as Christ’s words and life encourages his followers to do. Instead of love, they were met with bullets and blood.
As I write and the tears try and reveal themselves on my face, I reflect. I don’t think I originally wept for the lives of those who were killed. That may seem strange to say. As a Christian, we try to celebrate those lives and I did not know any of them personally.
I wept for the same reason I had years ago when I came across a picture of a young girl, maybe four years old, that I found one Christmas at my mother’s house. The similarity was so close, I initially thought it was my daughter. But this child was chained to a fence. She was not my daughter. Her face looked terrified as she cried with her mouth open. My mother, who prays and maintains an awareness of Christian suffering in other parts of the world, told me that the girl’s parents had been murdered in front of her for not denouncing their Christianity. The girl was also killed and left on the fence.
Like the nine people murdered in Charleston three years ago, I did not know this girl. As a Christian, I languished over the hate that exists in this world. Seeing the manifestation of evil was so overwhelming that all I could do was cry.
The evil that seems so big and insurmountable.
But here we are, three years after the massacre on Calhoun Street, in the midst of an election in which candidates highlighted their pride in the same Confederate flag worshipped by the terrorist who killed those nine people. Riding the wave created by President Donald Trump’s election, there is a resurgence of white supremacy. Hateful people get the president’s endorsement as “fine people.” Racism has become, not only legitimate political policy, but a valuable election tool.
It is easy to spin out of control and place yourself in a desert of misery against this backdrop. I find my despair slowly evolving into an anger. It wants people to blame. It wants to put a face to injustice. As the image becomes clarified through the tears, I see myself.
I know I had nothing to do with those murders. If you read my columns, I champion the cause of the minority and oppressed. I condemn actions of hate and racism. However, I am also lazy.
I find myself guilty of giving the responsibility for change to faceless movements. The same forces that make a contender of anyone running for office in South Carolina who uses the Confederate flag as a backdrop are the same that silence me. I get swept into my own thoughts and reduce my rejection of injustice to a hashtag.
There is nothing wrong with large movements. They have great purpose. However, real change can only occur in a person’s heart. We might swing an election or even a vote on a particular issue. That’s good. But the hate and sickness that ties a child to a fence or kills nine people inside a church isn’t impacted.
The mass gatherings are inspirational, but the battle occurs on an individual level. We can change the world for the better as undercover agents of love, one person at a time. As we reflect on Mother Emanuel, I think it is appropriate to consider their motives in Christ, distilled to a message of love. Instead of seeing a person as an enemy, see them as an opportunity to love. Change minds by impacting hearts. Don’t be overcome by hate. Instead, be a small light where people can find comfort. Put boots on the ground and arms around people every chance you get. In this way, we can honor the spirit of the Emanuel Nine. Let love become an action.