I was a stranger and you welcomed me

Julia Eichelberger

Julia Eichelberger

Heartbreakingly sad, horrifying, frightening, senseless. And so forth. I feel so terrible about the mass shooting at AME Emanuel—a church I drove past last night at about the time the shooter was going inside, attending a Bible study class. I feel uselessly terrible, since no one I knew personally was shot, since it’s not my congregation, not my race, not my history that’s been targeted once again. It’s our shared history, of course. I feel awful and sad and angry, and I wonder about the value of sharing that feeling, of giving myself some kind of credit for feeling bad about it. So let me start by acknowledging that many, many of us are feeling this way too, that my whiteness insulates me from sharper pains that people of color are feeling, and that I reflect on this event in as much humility as I can muster, because the dead deserve my grief along with everyone else’s, they deserved to live and now they deserve our collective sorrow, since that’s all we can offer up now.

The shooter, according to reports from the New York Times (what up, Post and Courier, why didn’t you have this info this morning?), entered the church at about the time I was driving past it, asked for the pastor, and sat next to him during a Bible study class. About an hour later, he started shooting people, reloading several times. A witness (survivor) reported afterwards that he said, “I have to do this. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

They’ve already caught a suspect and seem pretty confident that he’s the one. Racist statements on his facebook page, surveillance cameras outside the church, and let’s hope some additional evidence are all enough to confirm that he really did do it and let’s hope no one else was helping him. I don’t know what caused him, if he’s the one who did it, to pick this particular and historic and civil-rights-promoting church (it was Denmark Vesey’s church; its slain pastor was a state senator). Did he know this? Did he drive down here from his hometown of Columbia just to shoot up this particular church, or did he stumble randomly upon it? I would like to know these things, but they don’t matter too much at the moment. I just would like to say how sorry I am, how ashamed I am for us as a species and for those of us who are white that anyone in our number would go into a church where a small group of African Americans was holding a bible study, would ask to join and be welcomed by this group, then pull the trigger at least nine times.

I am horribly sad and also so impressed with us as a species to think that the members of this congregation politely welcomed this guy, this white boy, to come into their church and sit down with them. In a way, perhaps, this just confirmed his need to shoot them. They are nice to me even though I am of the we-hate-you race. They treat me just like anyone else that would walk in and ask to attend a Bible study (surely extra unusual in this neighborhood where few members of the congregation can now afford to live, where tourists and students and people like me walk and ride past, not on our way to Bible study at all). The pastor lets me sit next to him, acts like race is not important. Therefore I have to do this. This has to stop.

Today I tried to go to the prayer service that was being held at Morris Brown AME, but by the time Scott and I got there, not only was the church full, the street was full. We were already pretty hot by the time we got there, walking from the college down Coming Street, cars pulling in and out of already-packed parking lots, a gentleman in a suit a few steps in front of us, with some after-shave scent lingering on the sidewalk as we followed him. It’s in the upper 90s today, it’s sunny, it’s noon, and the first block of Morris Street was blocked off and full of people. The doors of Morris Brown were shut and a man was explaining to a well-dressed woman that they had seated the families and many other people who came early, and then they couldn’t accommodate any more inside. On the sidewalk in front of the church an impromptu prayer service was happening. A few people were speaking, no microphone, hard to hear. Scott and I, unable to find any shade from the oven-broiler sunlight, took a position in the crowd in which I could see the speaker if I stand on my toes. After a few minutes a black man, possibly clergy, started us in singing “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”

It’s a spiritual that advances two syllables at a time (We are. . . climbing. . . Jacob’s. . . Ladder) and the tune goes up a little each time the line is repeated, to match the words.

Every . . . rung goes . . . higher, . . . higher

Every . . . rung goes . . . higher, . . . higher

Every . . . rung goes . . . higher, . . . higher

Soldiers . . . of the . . .cross.

I know most of the words from Sunday school, but we never sang it with this fabulous syncopated clapping that the crowd took up, while a few of us continued to sing.

Sinner, do you know my Jesus . . . .

. . . If you love him, why not serve him ?

Soldiers of the cross.

“One more time!” our song leader called out and I sang as loud as I could,

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder

Soldiers of the cross.

Then a couple of other ministers and non-clergy offer some prayers. A white minister asks for whites to pray for forgiveness, for blacks to pray for their bitterness to be taken away. A member of the Unitarian church asks us to look around at one another (people of all races and ages) and to remember that this is Charleston, this is who we are. By this time I have loaned Scott my hat and am soaking wet, shading my eyes and wondering if I can get sun protection from other people’s shadows. When another man announces that people might wish to go inside the church offices to watch the service on TV, Scott and I decide we are both approaching heat stroke levels, that we are glad to have stood with the crowd awhile but don’t wish to take up space inside. There will be another service at 7 tonight, according to an email from my church. I guess I better get there early. Hope it will be this crowded again, hope it will be this good of a cross-section.

So then I came to my office, my a/c, my computer; I drank water and talked to Sara on the phone a little while. In 2007, as a high school junior, she was working for Obama for America, long before I had any idea he could win. In 2004 she had been staying with my parents when Obama gave the convention speech and my dad said to Sara, “He’s going to be our next president.” Dad was going downhill in those years. Mom, when she wasn’t looking after him as he went in and out of the hospital, had already begun putting in unbelievable hours and energy for the Polk County Democrats. She invited me and Roy to come up there and canvas on the weekend before the 2008 election. It was a beautiful fall day. Following our list of addresses of likely-to-vote-Democratic people, we came to one house with several people listed, and an African American lady of a certain age answered the door. We asked about one of the listed voters, and she explained that her husband had recently died. “He wanted to vote for Obama,” she said. I told her my dad had wanted to do that too.

In 1968 after King was killed, my dad, as a leader in some coalition of interfaith clergy in our little town, went on the radio and said some things, about how we should pray for our nation and mourn for these losses. “Four children have lost a father” is one of the things I remember him saying, listening to the radio playing in our paneled family room in Hendersonville, one of four children.

In 2006 or 7 Dad started attending a class or book club at an Episcopal church in Saluda, something where people wanted to discuss Flannery O’Connor and other topics he was interested in, a group of new people who didn’t seem to mind that he was beginning to repeat himself. After he died they urged my mom to hold the funeral there. Lots of the Polk County Democrats helped with the food. The former police chief of Charleston, a black Jewish man named Reuben Greenberg who had retired to Saluda, was among the people lined up to sign the guestbook. Afterwards, in a note Mom sent to the Episcopal church, she thanked them for their kindness, for the way they stepped up and hosted the funeral and all. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” she wrote.

So I am sad about a lot of things today, while also feeling grateful for crowds of people wanting to stand in the hot sun and say that we all felt terrible. That doesn’t fix what we’re grieved about and what caused it, that doesn’t stop someone else from opening fire on more people, including me even. There was apparently a bomb threat to the church a few minutes after Scott and I left Morris Street.

When Joe urged me to write a post for the blog, I’d been thinking I’d write about the Charleston County Council meeting I went to this week, at which the council approved a measure that the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, an interfaith community activist group, had been advocating for. It was a win for us: the council voted to fund a wage recovery program, a lawyer working for SC Legal Aid whose number you can call if you haven’t gotten paid what you were supposed to get—say, if your $200 paycheck has been $50 short for the past 2 weeks, or if you worked a day job for two weeks and then never got paid at all. Poor people, especially, can’t afford a lawyer to help them and some don’t even know they have a legal right to complain. So now the county has agreed to fund some protection for these workers. This is what CAJM has been working on for the past year, and a few weeks ago we had our big assembly with almost 2000 people present, where we showed the strength of our numbers and asked elected officials to take this step, and they agreed. And then this week they actually came through and voted it into being. That’s tremendously important. But even more, or just as, important is that all the congregations in this group stood together, an array of races and economic groups reflecting the diversity that is Charleston. We prayed and sang together, and for the benediction we all held hands, and the minister asked that we remember what a special and precious thing this was, people of different backgrounds united by a wish to make our community more just.

And that’s something I’m holding in my heart today, my little privileged heart that is breaking for the people who’ve been taken, the trust and peace shattered. In my little privileged and fearful heart I am trying to remember what we are capable of, the hard work of love and peace and building community and upholding justice and speaking truths, hard truths as well as the kind that make you feel good. In my little heart I am trying to feel the love that other hearts are feeling, the grief that we feel for the dead and the bereaved, the fear and the dread, along with our hope that those of us who are left will get through this, that we might be more willing to build community together. Shooting is easy, but love and justice and community, those are hard, and they have to be redone, reinvented, again and again. This is who we are. What we are capable of.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:34-40

Comments

  1. Cathy Cole Seilhan says:

    Beautiful and meaningful.

    Like

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