Emanuel AME members

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1

     The Confederate flag came down from the South Carolina statehouse grounds this month, later than it should’ve and sooner than I’d have predicted, and most people are glad about that, but some are concerned that this trend could be harmful, that other monuments might be taken down, streets renamed, and that this could “erase history.” It seems, to some op-ed columnists at least, that re-interpreting the significance of our shared history is, actually, a forgetting, a suppression of history. It’s as if the word doesn’t mean “what happened in the past” or “our incomplete but ongoing attempt to understand what happened in the past.” Rather, “history” means “a story about the past that I wish to continue telling,” or maybe “things I’ve come to believe about the past.”

When the President spoke at Clementa Pinckney’s funeral last month, many were quick to call it historic, and I’m inclined to agree with them. My own experience of listening to the speech, however, is a different kind of history. This account has limited historic significance. It’s just a story I want to tell myself, an attempt to understand what I’ve come to believe, about the present and the future.

I’d like to remember how many people wanted to be at the funeral, how many tried to come. After I’d gotten dressed in church clothes that morning and started reading reports on the size of the crowd that had already lined up, I almost stayed home, but friends who were in line texted me that I’d still have a chance of getting in if I got there right away. When I joined the line, it had stretched from the C of C’s TD Arena on Meeting Street, up to Wentworth, around the block and back down King, around Jim and Nick’s BBQ. The day was sunny, hot and getting hotter. By the time we reached the entrance to the arena, I’d seen several people I knew and hundreds I didn’t, people of all ages, many dressed all in all black or all white. Signs were directing AME Emanuel members to a side entrance to the arena, C of C employees were passing out water bottles from coolers. Dozens of EMT personnel and police and state troopers were among the crowd, which parted for a chartered bus turning onto George Street. At the security check-in I said, “Thanks for being here” to the woman who screened my purse and phone, a blond fortysomething police officer who replied politely, “Oh, it was an honor to be asked.” As we approached the inner doors to the arena, a splendidly dressed usher extended his white-gloved hand, wishing us a blessed day.

Some of what I remember can be verified in news accounts or the video you can watch on C-Span. The arena filled, people were turned away even from the overflow viewing areas outside. When we got inside, the place was almost full, so we were lucky to find seats in the uppermost section, near the stage. Below us was the coffin, heaped with long-stemmed roses and guarded by state highway patrolmen. All of the downstairs seats were reserved, mostly for members of AME Emanuel, or folks from Pinckney’s childhood church and prior pastorates. Behind their seats was a solid wall of TV cameras. In our section, seats were filling quickly, but with a friendly spirit. The man who sat next to me, Johnny Vereen, was the pastor of an AME church in Andrews, SC. His wife and others from his church were in the row in front of us, and after awhile we all rearranged ourselves to accommodate a mother whose sleeping daughter was too big for the mom’s lap. Before that, the Reverend Vereen and I chatted about how long we’d been in line, what our adult children did for a living. We enjoyed pointing out VIPS to each other as they arrived: Mayor Riley, Governor Haley, Jim Clyburn. The eight-page funeral program took us back to why we were here, especially the family pictures of Clementa Pinckney and the letters from his wife and daughters. Later I read of how Malana, the six-year-old, had been at the church with her mother during the shootings, hiding in her father’s office. “Dear Daddy,” she wrote. “I know you were shot at the Church and you went to Heaven. I love you so much! . . . Love your baby girl and grasshopper, Malana.”

Just for myself, I’d like to record that the program’s order of service was entitled “Order of Celebration” and included eight or ten musical selections before the procession started. From our section, we had a great view of the choir and the band—organ, piano, saxophone, electric guitar and bass, drums, violins. Lowcountry Voices, a community chorus that included white and black singers, and that I now want to join, filled up about eight rows, flanked by an equal number of choir members from AME Emanuel and other churches. The choral conductor was fun to watch, his wrists held straight and his fingers extended, his swaying upper body graceful and expressive, tall in a black suit. Whenever the singers and the band got into a groove, people down on the floor would lift their hands, sometimes standing up. When we clapped, it was in lively patterns: xx x, xx x, xx, xx, x xx x. Most people knew to stand as soon as they played the opening bars of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” and I was glad I knew the words to the first verse.

But when I wasn’t singing it was harder not to feel the weight of it all: the energy and the rhythm pushing against the sorrow, the ministers’ words of comfort that I wished I could feel sure about. I’d like to remember that feeling now, how we rose for the procession of a very long line of clergy. AME Emanuel’s interim pastor, the Reverend Norvel Goff, led the procession across the arena floor, reciting verses of scripture. The room had gone silent except for footsteps and the clicking of cameras. Goff has the kind of voice that carries without a microphone, so I could recognize what he was reciting even though I couldn’t catch every word. I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, even though he dies, shall live. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Hearing these sentences, solemn and confident, I had to hold my breath, lift rib cage and sternum away from the heart. That’s how I usually slow the flow of tears in public, and it worked for me again that day, as if a bottle full of something had almost tipped over but was righted just in time. I could see Jennifer Pinckney and her two girls walking in, and I needed that. In my father’s house there are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you.

It’s of no historical interest, but I will record it anyway, that until a few years ago I attended my own church at least once a week, could be found there two or three more days a week for choir practice, committee meetings, children’s programs. And that I’m not there very often these days, though I’m proud of my church for its support of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, grateful for the opportunities that has given me to work with people from other congregations whom I’d never have met otherwise. Grateful for a better understanding of who my neighbors are, how we as a community are falling short, how activists might effect positive change. [Spoiler alert: long slow process, one tiny step at a time, yet it turns out progress is actually possible.] I’m grateful to be involved in that work, but it’s hard for me, most days, to hear words of assurance like those being spoken in the arena. I don’t have the confidence of the people calling out YES, lifting up their hands and finishing the scripture along with the minister.

For the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible [THAT’S RIGHT.]

Then shall be brought to pass the thing that is written. Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, [YES] where is thy sting?

I didn’t cry then, but I can tell you I was overwhelmed by the sorrows people have to bear, unsure about a final remedy or a comforting rescue at the last trumpet. I held that in, though, clapping to the music, taking deep breaths.

I would also like to remember that the faith of some of my fellow Charlestonians has grown out of experiences I haven’t had. It wasn’t just generosity that caused some of the AME families to tell Dylann Roof they forgave him. Rev. Joseph Darby mentioned this in a really good column published today, noting that earlier generations of these families “learned to forgive, not only as an often overlooked Christian imperative, but as a means of coping with a system where they were subjected to rape, maiming, brutality and the sale of their children by those they were forced to labor for and interact with as slaves until they escaped, died or were murdered.” To choose forgiveness is to announce My mind will not be consumed with the evil you do: an act of self-liberation. Therefore my beloved brethren, be steadfast [YES], immovable.

Trying to write this all down, I’m also thinking that to proclaim the resurrection of the body, the life everlasting, the love of God from which nothing can separate us—to do this is to defy the powers that try to unmake your humanity; it is a way to say we’re not done here whenever events suggest otherwise. As another minister said, welcoming people to the service, “What we’ve been through and what we have to go through, it would not be possible without a God.” People voiced their agreement as he continued: “And we believe that this God of ours is more than able to take us through a time like this time. So we invite you to come and worship with us this morning. Put aside every weight, put aside every depression and despondency and despair. Wherever God is present, there is joy in the house.” People spoke their agreement, kept applauding as he said, “Let’s praise a God, let’s worship a God, let’s celebrate a God who brings victory out of seeming defeat.”

I want to remember hearing these kinds of confident declarations, hearing others agreeing with them.

When we have drunk our last cup of sorrow [YES], when we have been called everything but a child of God, [YES], O Mary’s baby, Jesus, stand by us.

Seeing that we are compassed about by so great a cloud of witnesses [ALL RIGHT]. I say to us, run on [YES]. Run on and see what the end will be [YES].

These words in that room were beautiful beyond my telling, and for me–soft-hearted, tenderfooted, sheltered and anxious—they were hard to hear, hard to trust. But I was buoyed up by the day itself, the people from my town and from far and wide who’d come to share our common sorrow, a witnessing beyond what I’d expected. The Reverend Goff recognized special guests several times during the service. Hilary Clinton, Jesse Jackson. When he welcomed the South Carolina legislature, it looked as if every member was there, about six rows of them. I was gob-smacked when he asked U. S. congressmen and senators to stand: another five rows, including John Boehner looking characteristically annoyed, John Lewis looking characteristically cool. Then Goff invited AME Emanuel members to stand, then members of Pinckney’s home church in Ridgeland, then all the clergy who were present today. “And now, let’s give Senator Pinckney a good round of applause,” he concluded. “Yeah, yeah. Yeah, come on. He’s all right.”

I could go on a long time about the feeling, the power in the room. The way people urged on the speaker when they recognized the verse being quoted. Surely . . .[SURELY!] goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. The way they joined another minister as he smiled kindly and read the Epistle lesson. Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God. He does not faint or grow weary. . . . Even youth will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted. People knew what was coming next. But . . .[YES!] those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. [THAT’S RIGHT!]

I learned a new scripture verse that day. Norvel Goff referred to it the first time he took the podium. “No weapon formed against us,” he said, and there was no need to finish it, folks immediately applauded. He nodded and said, “It’s all right. No weapon formed against us, no evil can separate us from the love of God.” I looked the verse up later and found it in Isaiah: No weapon formed against you shall prosper. It came up again, later in the service, and people around me shouted out, “No weapon!” Isaiah is often read in my church, but I didn’t know that verse, which makes sense, I suppose. None of the white Presbyterian churches I’ve belonged to have been shot at. According to tour guides, First (Scots) church donated its bell to the Confederacy, to be melted into bullets.

I want to remember all the times people called out insistently, “Come on!” I tried watching the footage of the service on C-Span to see how many of those I could catch, but it’s not audible there, the broadcast having been filmed from the back of the room with only one microphone at the podium. As I remember it, people would say “Come on!” when triumph was being forecast, when the secret weapon was unveiled, the real winners identified. It sounded like the kind of thing you’d call out when someone had caught a pass or hit one out of the park and was now about to score. That was the feeling when the President started singing “Amazing Grace.” As soon as he’d sung the first two notes, Ahh-ahhh, the clergy standing behind him were on their feet. Here it comes, their uplifted arms announced.

The President arrived about three hours into the service, during Reverend Randolph Miller’s rendition of “’Tis the Old Ship of Zion.” That’s something you should watch sometime if you haven’t already. Singing from the pulpit with the full strength of the band and choir behind him, Miller led off by saying, “Clementa told me to tell you, if you want to see him, get on board. Can I get a witness.” I enjoyed his gravelly voice even more when I watched him online this week. “Get on board,” he sang, his outstretched arms encouraging the rest of us. “There’s no danger. . . in God’s water. . . . It has landed . . . many a thousand.” By this point in the service, everyone knew the President was going to walk in any second. My section came to its feet as soon as we saw him approaching his seat in front of the stage with Michelle and the Bidens. His eulogy wasn’t scheduled in the order of service for another half a page, and nobody skipped anything once he got there. Obama stood up, sat down, clapped, bowed his head like the rest of us, until he was introduced. Then the cheering went up a couple of notches, and even higher when the whole arena could see him up on the stage. I was star-struck, as if I were watching the Beatles in 1965. A little part of my mind was laughing at myself but most of me was ridiculously happy, thinking, He came for us. For the bereaved who deserved it, for people like me who didn’t.

The speech was really good; most anyone reading it will say the same, but it was extra good for those of us who’d been in the room all day. People were ready for him to preach, to begin by saying “Giving all praise and honor to God,” and then to read a verse from Hebrews.

They were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive all the things promised, but only saw them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on Earth.

It did something for me, to hear the President praising Pinckney as a man of faith. Faithfulness, he reminded people who didn’t need reminding, means working on behalf of others, working for a better future, for things that will not come to you, but to those who live after you. It was also sad and lovely to hear him read the nine names. “People so full of life and so full of kindness. People who ran the race, who persevered.” You can read it for yourself if you want to see the way he continued to echo scripture and hymns, like the preacher he really is. What I need to remember here is what was happening to us in that room, why I was so grateful to be there.

It seemed as if the speech had been written for me, as odd as that sounds: it wasn’t my pastor we were laying to rest; my ancestors were not the ones who were kidnapped and enslaved, their labor and liberty stolen before and after Emancipation; it wasn’t my grandparents whose skin color made them ineligible for a job or a housing loan; it isn’t my children who’re afraid of being hurt by police. Me, I’m only just learning how little I know about so many of these things. But I do know enough to recognize that it’s historic for a president to have talked about them the way he did. It was historic even for Obama to lay it out this way, to say that black humanity has been attacked over and over again and we have pretended it wasn’t happening. “We see that now,” he said.

I was glad to hear him say that black churches have been places were children can be protected and fed, “and told they are beautiful, and smart. That they matter.” Applause was now coming every few words. He stated matter-of-factly that AME Emanuel was “built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founder sought to end slavery, only to rise up again, a Phoenix from these ashes.”  Many people in the room didn’t need to be told this, but it’s not every day you hear a president tell truths that have shamed our country: that the killer’s attack on this church was part of “a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches; not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress.” The shooter was not an original thinker. And he’d assumed that his crimes “would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.”

Then Obama paused. “Oh,” he said, giving the crowd time to begin cheering, “but God works in mysterious ways.” We knew where he was going but we were unprepared for how important it would be to get there with him, to cheer him on as he caught passes history had thrown him. “Come on!” people said as he praised the dead. He named more sins of commission and omission that had gone on too long. “For too long!” we called back. And he pointed out past miracles of survival and perseverance, proof of the good we can do. All in those long sentences I’m such a sucker for, elegant dependent clauses and thoughtful qualifiers, lyrical and philosophical, calling upon the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Reminding us that grace is not earned, but we can choose how we receive it. Then he paused again and started to sing. The musicians found him by the third measure, the violins, the saxophones, bass guitars, Hammond organ, all adding their grace notes while they had the chance.

After that, he spoke again the names of the dead and the organ stayed right with him, and he asked for more grace for us all, and for that moment and for a long time after, I had confidence in what he’d told us because we had all been there together, believing it.

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.   Hebrews 12:1

     That was four weeks ago, and it’s taken me a long time to finish this. Writing it was harder than I thought it would be, and I haven’t really added to what everyone else said that day, what is being said now. It’s just a little monument to something I think should be remembered. Maybe my resolve, my nervous cowering heart, will prove to have been strengthened by writing this. Hope so. We have a lot of work to do.

     Can I get a witness. Can I get an amen.

president begins speaking

5 thoughts on “Witnessing

  1. The auditions for Lowcountry Voices are on August 3rd. 5:30 – 7:30 pm at St Peter’s Church on Sanders Ave in N. Chas. Call Linda Malcolm 843-729-5397 for details. Break a leg!!


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