We say their names today.
The Honorable Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd
Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons
Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
For those of us who have lived in Charleston for more than five years, we divide our tenure here into “before the Emanuel AME shooting” and “after the Emanuel AME shooting.” This hate crime ripped a hole in our region that reverberated across the world. A month after the massacre, I traveled to Ecuador on a mission trip with my congregation. During our opening worship service with the Bishop of the Ecuadorian Methodist Church, he looked at us and said, “I am so very sorry for your loss. We have been praying for your city and you since we heard the terrible news.” For the first time in four weeks, tears fell. I had spent the past month organizing vigils and prayer walks, showing up for my colleagues who had close and deep relationships with the martyrs, leading my church in conversations on white supremacy and our role in systems of oppression. There wasn’t space to experience the deep grief that this citywide trauma inflicted because there was too much work to do. It wasn’t until someone else was doing the leading that I felt the brokenness that shattered our city that night become real and personal.
But once that wound was opened, it’s stayed raw and gaping in my own spirit. I’ve felt anger at tourists who go by Mother Emanuel flippantly and take selfies out front. I was enraged when last year at the Wild Goose Festival speaker after speaker used the shooting and the families’ offering of forgiveness to the murderer as sermon illustrations and points in their talks. When I drive down Calhoun Street, named after the notorious white supremacist, and see a small alley renamed Emanuel Way instead of this major corridor, my fury burns white hot.
The injury this act of racial terror exposed has remained painful because our city, our people, our country has done nothing in the past five years to atone for their deaths or to address in deep and systematic ways the systems that allow white supremacy to reign. This massacre should have been a blaring siren that calls us to address the ways that racism has kept our Black siblings and friends in bondage and oppression for 400 years, Instead, we muted its sound and made superficial and surface level changes, like renaming an alleyway, to make those of us who are white feel better. We could then point at conferences, street signs, and well-publicized conversations and say, “Look at us! What a long way we’ve come.”
But we haven’t come a long way. Instead, we’ve moved backwards. As the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of violent police officers have mounted, as racist policies in schools have suspended Black children by the thousands, as the expansion of mass incarceration of Black people has continued unabated, we are forced to look up five years later and confess that we as white people have not honored the deaths of the Emanuel Nine. Our inaction, our refusal to make hard changes in our own lives, our closed minds to the possibilities of systemic change have failed our Black siblings and friends in real and significant ways.
So today, we say the names of the massacre victims of Mother Emanuel AME. But friends, that is not enough.
Speaking about them is not enough.
Taking easy superficial steps at honoring their memory is not enough.
Attending prayer vigils and programs put on by white people is not enough.
Their deaths demand more. Their sacrifice demands action. Their memories deserve our full commitment to radical, complete structural change so that white supremacy is once and for all.
In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples, his closest friends, “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:14). The work of honoring the death of these nine martyrs is dangerous. It requires all of us. It is a lifetime of work. It is necessary. God calls us to it.
White friends, it’s time. Sitting on the sidelines, patting ourselves on the back for our good intentions is not enough. Let’s step out into the streets, into our offices, into our governments, into our classrooms, into our churches and truly honor the sacrifice of the Emanuel Nine with our very lives. Jesus has already done the same, going before us. Let’s get going and follow him.