My wife and I are priests in Columbia, South Carolina. Across the street from my wife’s church is the statehouse, in front of which when I left home flew the Confederate flag. It is still there now.
I serve a parish in northwest Columbia, near Lexington, which is where Dylann Roof grew up. People in my church know his family. Down the street from where I live are two of the schools he attended, elementary and high school both. I see the schools every day.
Dylann is a member of an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation. I am in full communion with him. So are we all in our church.
This fall I plan on teaching a course at the local ELCA seminary, Lutheran Southern Theological. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, late pastor of Emanuel AME in Charleston, was a graduate. So was the Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., who died with Pastor Pinckney.
The night after the horror, a friend of ours came over for dinner, a Presbyterian pastor in town. He is a black man serving a mostly white church, married to a white woman. Before Dylann Roof opened fire, he told his victims: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. You have to go.” Our friend stepped into his pulpit the Sunday after with fear and trembling, not just with the great burden of preaching the Word that morning but for his life.
All of this has lain heavy like a stone on my heart. But I do not have to live in fear when I go to the house of God on Sunday mornings. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy upon us.
A few days ago, I listened as the dean of the cathedral in Buffalo testified at a marriage committee hearing that our Book of Common Prayer marriage rite is like the Confederate flag that flies in my city, a sign of discrimination, hate, and violence in our pews that we dare to use to worship God.
Two nights ago, the Rev. Susan Russell testified at the next hearing that “it is time to let our yes be yes, and end what is nothing less than de facto sacramental apartheid.”
One person after another testified, overwhelmingly in favor of equal access to all of the sacraments of the church. Anything less, so many testified, would be “separate but equal,” like the great racist lie in the days of Jim Crow.
Friday morning brought news about the Supreme Court’s ruling. Joy and relief and jubilation were on many faces. Before worship, the jazz band struck up an exuberant “Siyahamba,” from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. “We are marching in the light of God, we are marching in the light of God!” There was laughter, and dancing, and cheers.
I do not fully understand what it means to be a black man in South Carolina, or in Ferguson, or in Sandtown. How could I? My wife was having dinner the other day and heard a story from two black women. When they go to Target or to the grocery store, people always ask them where to find items. They don’t work there, but they are black so it is assumed. Our black pastor friend is sometimes mistaken for a waiter or a bartender at wedding receptions, at weddings where he has done the ceremony. I will never face that. I look clubbable. I look like an Episcopal rector.
As a priest in South Carolina, I believe I have started to understand better something that I did not growing up in North Dakota. Many people whose hands I shake on Sunday morning grew up under Jim Crow. Flannery O’Connor said that the unique thing about the American South is that it knows it has had its Fall. It lost the war. The beauty of old Charleston was built by slave labor, cheap. People in the South at their best know this and know they are sinners washed in the blood of the Lamb.
When I meet someone in South Carolina who has lived through all this, perhaps was taught to think this way by their beloved parents and grandparents, I assume that if they understand themselves as progressive it is this they want to progress away from. Separate but equal, lynching, fear, 400 years of slavery: never again! “We are marching in the light of God.”
We must think this way. Look, we were responsible for this terrible sin against God and humanity: where else might we be doing this? You might say that the whole of ethics is making the right analogies. Jesus lived this way, and said this and that: how then do we follow him now?
But to make the analogies well, we must always attend carefully to who makes them. There are African-American persons in our church who make the analogy between racism, segregation, and same-sex marriage. It is important that we listen to their voices. Nevertheless, it is glaringly obvious that there are no African-Americans or Native Americans on the legislative committee for marriage. There are no representatives from Haiti. Most of the people here at convention are white.
No one on the marriage committee, and few of us at convention, will ever be asked at Target which way to the men’s room, or at a wedding reception for another drink. We will not fear for our lives in church, or when we see a police car. We look like Episcopalians.
I am neither a member of the LGBT nor the African-American community. I do not know from the inside how to make the analogy between their experiences, one to another. How could I? But what I can do is listen to both communities talk to one another, as they seek to draw analogies to the story of Scripture in which the ultimate fittingness of our lives is found.
I hope that we find a way to do that as our church grapples with this deeply important issue. For myself, I think that I have some listening to do.
I will go home to a state still in shock, still in mourning, still in fear. I do not imagine I will ever do in my lifetime anything so great for the Lord’s ministry of reconciliation as the men and women from Emanuel AME who offered forgiveness to Dylann Roof, through tears and deep grief.
What can I do now that follows in their footsteps? How can I follow those saints who followed the footsteps of Jesus, made wise and holy by studying the Scriptures their brothers and sisters read as they invited Dylann to join?
As we follow their lead, we are marching in the light of God.
The featured image of Emanuel AME Church is by Howard Arnoff, via Flickr. It is licensed by Creative Commons.