Tragedies can define a city and bring them closer together ,or they can polarize a city and tear it apart. In Boston, a senseless act of terrorism took innocent lives, but the community rallied together under the phrase Boston Strong. In Charleston eight years ago, this same community came together to honor nine heroic firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty. Last week, a horrific and heinous crime was committed with the stated intent of tearing the community apart along racial lines. As members of the Charleston community, we must not allow that to happen.

The fact that the shooter was a white male who intentionally targeted African Americans in a place of worship brings an aggravated level of premeditated intent and hatefulness to these killings. We wonder, what could motivate someone so young to kill innocent people who were kind to him, solely because of their race? What type of climate does it take to foster that type of hatred and how widespread is that sentiment among the extreme fringes of our society? How much of it is tolerated or accepted by others who don’t hold such extreme views? And is it a climate that is specifically tolerated or encouraged in pockets of our state?

The immediate reaction by many may be to not only condemn this act of racism but to apply it on to all of South Carolina, characterizing it as symptom of a larger statewide problem. And there is some truth in the statement that racist sentiment of this type, although not yet on the level of murderous violence, is far more widespread in our state than we all realize. But to simply condemn the shooter and the conditions which made his mind-set possible and to stop there would also potentially condemn some members of the community who sympathize with the families of the victims and those directly affected by the shooting. While we must eradicate racism in all its forms, whether subtle and institutional or overt and violent, we must also recognize evil for what it is and focus our attentions on improving racial relations rather than simply pointing fingers or casting blame on one another.

In New York City with the World Trade Center destruction, the enemy was terrorism and radical Islam. Had the takeaway from those tragedies been simply the vilification or demonization of Muslims or Saudi Arabians, the community would not have had the opportunity to heal and instead would have continued down a path of racial animus and xenophobia. Dylann Roof would have wanted more racial division as a result of his evil act. He wanted to start a race war. Instead, the Charleston community is coming together in prayer and dialogue like never before. Serious discussions have started again about removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse. These are signs that open dialogue on race and true racial reconciliation may be the silver linings in this horrible dark cloud of sadness and pain.

South Carolina has a long way to go with race relations. It was not all that long ago black students were shot during the Orangeburg Massacre, and the prevailing sentiment from the white community was not of one of sympathy. And as recent as the the Walter Scott shooting some doubted that it had anything to do with race. With Emanuel AME Church, the community response is markedly different. Already, area businesses and individuals have contributed hundreds of thousands to the Mother Emmanuel fund.

Dialogue, prayers, and the outpouring sympathy, along with constructive dialogue on how to eliminate racial bigotry and prejudice will help heal this community. If we continue to come together and support one another during this time, the legacy of the Divine Nine may be creating the flash point to improve race relations in South Carolina moving forward. If we do this, the lives of those nine noble parishioners will not have been lost in vain.