The Day Both Everything and Nothing Changed

Post Author: Austin Shelley

A sign made by members of Emanuel AME invites others to join them in the work of forgiveness.

A sign made by members of Emanuel AME invites others to join them in the work of forgiveness.

Until June 17, 2015, I had the privilege of referring to Charleston, South Carolina as: the charming city in which I met my husband, the enchanting city in which shrimp ‘n’ grits and sweet tea grace most restaurant menus, the Southern city in which my sister grows summer squash. If you, my YCW sisters, were planning a trip to Charleston, I would urge you to snag a spot on a wooden swing at Waterfront Park and to stay put until the sun sets and the stars glisten over the water. I’d give you a map of cast-iron gates older than your great-grandmother, restaurants serving buttered biscuits the size of cantaloupes, and a rainbow row of Victorian houses lined up on the harbor. I’d point out the Spanish moss that hangs like Dali’s surrealist clocks from thick, gnarled tree branches. I’d encourage you to take a sabbath, to do some self-care in the form of dancing barefoot to the grace notes of a live jazz band in the town square.

But on June 17, 2015, everything changed. Charleston caught the attention of the national news media. Its name was added to a growing list of places made known for tragedy: Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Newtown, Staten Island, Columbine, Midtown Manhattan, Oklahoma City, Hempstead, and too many more—all plagued by incomprehensible hatred and violence. Around 9 o’clock on the evening of June 17, everything I knew about Charleston changed. Because nothing really changes at all.

Nine people were killed in Charleston that night. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, The Rev. Daniel Simmons, The Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson were shot by a stranger they had first welcomed into their prayer meeting and Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Whether we know these people personally or not, we know them. They’re the ones who show up to church not only for Sunday morning worship, but also for midweek Bible study. They’re the ones who, for whatever reason, choose to gather to sing hymns after a long, hot summer day instead of curling up on the sofa. They’re the ones who welcome strangers in the name of the One who taught us to welcome the stranger.

I don’t know a single clergy colleague who isn’t haunted and heartbroken by the fact that the gunman sat with the people who would later become his victims, in what should have been a sanctuary—a safe place—for an hour before opening fire. They extended to him the peace of Christ.

In return, he killed them. Nine irreplaceable people are dead. The Emanuel AME family is in deep mourning, yet somehow, they are still speaking forgiveness. And not the easy kind. It is a forgiveness that is utterly saturated with gut-wrenching lament. Charleston now has its own hashtag, and it has nothing to do with shrimp ‘n’ grits. Everything changed when the shootings happened. And the shootings happened because nothing really changes at all.

I say nothing really changes at all, because for all of Charleston’s Southern charms, there are just as many reasons to be ashamed of its history. From the swings at Waterfront Park, you’ll see more than the sunset. Across the glistening water is Fort Sumter, a barricade from which the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Market Street, just minutes from Emanuel AME, dead ends into the very courthouse steps where African men, women, and children were sold into slavery. Generations later, even after the abolition of slavery, their descendants’ backs are still hunched from the weight of oppression. I’ll give you two guesses as to who wrought those turn-of-the-century cast-iron gates and labored to lift the beams of those Victorian houses. As a young white woman, I used to have the privilege of relegating these atrocities to the past. But on June 17, everything changed. Because nothing really changes at all.

I had written a sermon the day before. The lectionary gospel lesson was Mark 4:35-41, Jesus’ calming the storm. Tuesday’s sermon named life’s storms: severed relationships, dreaded diagnoses, lost dreams, addiction, grief. By Thursday morning, these very real, fear-inducing storms seemed like nothing more than ripples in the face of a new wave that had unexpectedly swamped our boat. The words of Mark’s gospel took on flesh again. The people of Emanuel AME, in the name of Jesus, welcomed a stranger into their boat. Just as he was. They said, “Let us go across to the other side,” and they shared God’s word with someone who had formerly been beyond their walls. And the stranger journeyed with them a ways, until “a great storm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.”

It would take until Sunday morning to write a new sermon. For the rest of the week I struggled and prayed, bewildered and saddened and paralyzed by the news coverage and the photographs from Charleston. Saturday came and went, and I had managed little more than to beg with the disciples, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Don’t you care that children are gunned down in first grade classrooms? Don’t you care that unarmed black women and men—and even teenage girls at a pool party—are wrestled to the ground, choked to death, or shot while holding their hands in the air? Don’t you care that the very people who are trying to be your hands and feet in this world—teachers, librarians, guidance counselors, social workers, and pastors—just running errands or driving cars or studying scripture—are shot at point blank range? Don’t you care that a five-year-old girl at Emanuel AME church knew enough about the deep roots of racism to play dead so that she might survive the attack? “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?

Before Jesus can even rub the sleep from his eyes, he says, “Peace, be still.” At least that’s what the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible tells us. But you and I know better. Either we sat through one too many semesters of Greek or we simply intuit enough about Jesus to be suspicious of that translation. When Jesus calmed the storm, he said something more akin to “SHUT UP! STOP IT!” than “Peace, be still.” The gospel writer tells us that Jesus rebuked the wind and the waves. But I wonder: was Jesus speaking only to the sea? The wind and the waves are no match for Jesus, but the human heart is not so easily silenced. What if Jesus is speaking to the fear raging within the hearts of his disciples? What if Jesus is speaking to us?

In the gospel of Mark, the disciples’ fear never disappears. At first they’re paralyzed by the storm, then by awe of the one who calms the storm. This is a word of hope for us, sisters. Are we afraid we won’t stop racism? We won’t. Are we afraid that whoever we are, and whatever our background, we will have to admit our own complicity in the systems that keep racism alive? We will. Are we afraid of going about this the wrong way? Of offending our congregations who pay our salaries? Of not listening well to—or following the lead of—those among us who are sisters of color? Even as I write this article, I’m afraid of having good intentions that ultimately fail because of the blinders of my own privilege. But today, as a pastor, I hear Jesus’ call anew. He sends me into the world to listen and to learn from sisters and brothers who are teaching me how to be an ally, those who, by the color of their skin, don’t have the option of ignoring this storm. Overwhelmingly, these voices are compelling me to act and to hear Jesus saying, “SHUT UP!” to the fears that have kept me from having hard conversations in my church, in my friend circles, and at the dinner table.

More than a month after the Charleston shootings, I stood on the sidewalk outside Mother Emanuel AME Church. More than 700 miles away from home,

The fire hydrant, sidewalk, and trees outside Emanuel AME bear the names, prayers, and condolences of passersby.

The fire hydrant, sidewalk, and trees outside Emanuel AME bear the names, prayers, and condolences of passersby.

I wept next to a fire hydrant covered in sharpie-marker prayers. Beside a plywood sign that read, “Forgive as we have been forgiven–Mother Emanuel AME Church” was another sign still bearing the words, “Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Pastor.” My heart sank. I prayed for the person who will eventually change that sign. I prayed for the members of Emanuel AME who witness to the way of Jesus Christ even as they mourn. I prayed for an end to the violence that leads to sidewalk memorials. And I prayed that we as pastors would learn from the people of Emanuel AME that the Word must put on flesh again in order to be alive.

I know that it isn’t enough to hope things will change. Or to join our voices in the lament. Or to forgive the wrongs. Or even to be forgiven for the wrongs we have perpetuated. Nothing will change if we do not respond to the one who calms the waves that crash so wildly upon the walls of our own hearts. It will not do merely to shake our heads or weep or lock our church doors in fear. We are sent into the world to sign petitions, to march for justice, to write letters to senators, to sit outside county jail cells, to preach, to teach, to have hard but necessary conversations, to be honest with ourselves about our own preconceived prejudices, and to commit to living in a way that honors all people as the images of God that they are. Jesus is in our boat. Everything must change. God, help us.

Austin Shelley serves as the Associate Pastor for Christian Education at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, PA. She grew up on a small farm in South Carolina. She delights in drinking sweet tea brewed by her husband and planting a backyard garden with her three children.

Image by: Austin Shelley
Used with permission
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