A little over a year ago a young, white male walked into a predominantly black church for a Wednesday night service/prayer gathering. He sat with a group of black worshippers for over an hour. After some time, he chose to shoot the ten people there, killing nine of them. This event shook me. It shook a community. It shook a city.
For someone who is not familiar with the church, there are two important pieces of this setting that I need to shed light on. First of all, Wednesday night services at the church tend to be more casual services than your traditional Sunday service. There are common prayers and scriptures that stay true to the rituals of a Christian service but there's a different vibe in the air of a Wednesday night service. The gathering tends to be more unstructured and revolve around the current mood of the facilitator. If the priest or elderly woke up thinking about grace or forgiveness or doubt, that's typically what gets brought up in Wednesday night services. They've always felt more raw to me. Less rituals and routines and more feelings and desire, which I find more beneficial in helping to understand and learn from one another.
The second important aspect for you to understand is the culture of a black church. In my later childhood years my mother decided to take us to a new church on the other side of town. I remember the feeling I got when my family of six walked into this predominantly black church. First, I remember thinking that I was incredibly underdressed. Think Kentucky derby hats, dresses and suits: bright, bold and exquisitely matching. I'm pretty certain we were in jeans, which immediately gave me anxiety and a rush of awkwardness. I tried to sit as quietly as possible as the congregation loudly sang hymns from the 'African American hymnal.' I wasn't even aware that an 'African American hymnal' existed until that day. So this young girl in jeans and a t-shirt (Me) sat quietly and tried to stay as undercover as possible praying for the service to end so I could tell mom that it was a little weird she brought us to this church across town. Then something happened that I will absolutely never forget.
The priest announced that it was time for the 'peace'. The time of peace in the church is the time that the congregation wishes each other 'God's peace' or 'peace be with you.' This tends to be just your direct neighbors in the pew, so no more than 2 or 3 people. You shake Bob's hand or Lisa's or Kate's and say 'God's peace' or 'peace be with you'. Simple, awkward, and routine for a Sunday service. Since there are 6 people in my family, and we usually take up an entire pew, I've gotten used to selfishly keeping the 'God's peace' between my siblings, my parents and myself. This all changed on that day at St. Philips.
"Peace be with you. And also with you" rang out and prompted the peace of the congregation. Per usual, I turned towards Cassidy (my twin sister) and said 'peace be with you, loser'. Just as I started to lean towards my older sister, Jessica, I noticed that the entire congregation was filing out of their pews. What were these people doing?! One by one, the people of St. Philips’ church began walking around to each pew and each person. Before they could say any words of peace they had their arms wrapped around you in a hug. While wrapped in their arms they'd say, 'Peace be with you my child.' There was one woman in particular that I remember from that day. Her name was Annette and she was a larger than life lady who wore a bright lime green hat that matched her patterned bold pink dress. She swallowed me in her hug like a boa constrictor wraps around their prey. She loudly said, 'God's peace baby. Y'all better be staying after the service for some lunch because Aunt Annette cooked something special for today.' Random side note: under no circumstances should you ever refuse the offer of a large black woman's home cooked meal.
So after the service we walked into the church’s small foyer area and were lovingly ambushed by the church's members. Still to this day it's the best fried okra, Mac and cheese, fried chicken, and collards I've ever eaten in my life. The car ride home was quiet, as we suffered from food coma symptoms. We were full; full from southern home cooked food, full of love, and full from a delivery of God's peace that I didn't know existed. This fullness continued throughout our time at St Philips. I'd like to think I've experienced what might be considered 'God's peace' many times in my life, and I can tell you that Aunt Annette's hugs are one of those gifts of peace.
I tell you this story because there is great value in understanding the culture of the black church community in order to wrap your head around the June 16th tragedy. Because I'm certain that there was an Annette in that pew. I'm sure she stood up and she wrapped her arms around that boy and she wished him God's peace, just like she's done many times in her life. Because Annette is not a rarity in the black church, she's the foundation. She's the strength, love, forgiveness, and hope that are rooted so deeply in the black church. And when that boy killed those nine beautiful, black people in the Emanuel AME church a year ago there was only one reaction I should have expected to arise from that community. The people of the AME church are loving. The people of the AME are forgiving. The people of the AME church are strong. And that's how Charleston became strong. The Emanuel AME church made Charleston strong.
Viktor Frankl, in his memoir about his time as a prisoner in a concentration camp, wrote 'Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.' This was a hate crime against you and your community. The real tragedy is the familiarity of these events. That hate crimes continue to happen in every community. You chose your freedom by responding with love, forgiveness and strength. May we all choose that path. It's the path that will lead to the burial of hate.
Excluding Christmas and Easter with the family, I have not walked into a church on a Sunday in years. I can't seem to find a church community as welcoming, loving and forgiving as St Phillips. I am humbled and grateful to have been raised in that community. Thank you for making Charleston strong. Thank you for making me strong. Stay strong. Thank you for guiding us, AME.
'Peace be with you my child.'
Written by: Tristan Connett
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