Dear friends in Christ:
I have visited three places in the world that I would describe as breathless.
By this I mean that these were places that were so overwhelming to me with their history of pain and sorrow that they simply took my breath away and I was left breathless, unable to breathe.
One of those places is Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, commonly known as Mother Emanuel.
I was there with ELCA bishops and their spouses. We walked to the church in a group from our hotel, following the sidewalk that skirts Marion Square and its enormous monument to John C. Calhoun. Calhoun, a South Carolina politician who was vice president of the United States under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He was a staunch defender of slavery. His statue stood atop a 115-foot column, standing so tall so as to discourage damage and defacement.
We sat in silence in the sanctuary of Mother Emanuel. This is the church where, on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, murdered nine African American members who had gathered for a Bible study, including Mother Emanuel’s senior pastor. More than anything, we were there to pay our respects.
John C. Calhoun seemed to scowl at us as we paraded back to the hotel. Ironically, or so it seemed to me, we passed Charleston’s Holocaust Memorial located in the same Marion Square. Paulette and I stopped to look. And grieve. I had not yet been able to take a deep breath.
In 2019, at the Churchwide Assembly, we, as a church, added a commemoration of the Emanuel Nine to our calendar on June 17. Of course, June 19 is Juneteenth, a day that celebrates the emancipation of enslaved human beings in the United States. It is important that we honor these days as we continue in the worthy struggle to eliminate white supremacy and systemic racism. So much work remains to be done.
In 2020, after watching over the square for 124 years, the statue of John C. Calhoun was removed from Marion Square.
Please take a deep breath and pray with me:
We give you thanks, Holy God, for the faithful life and witness of Clementa, Cynthia, Daniel, DePayne, Ethel, Myra, Sharonda, Susie, and Tywanza, the Emanuel Nine. May their faith and witness to your forgiving love in Jesus Christ inspire all people to pursue paths of justice, courage, and self-giving love.
Immanuel, God with us, you embrace in love those who cry out to you. Lift up all whom hatred has cast down; embolden those who need courage to speak and act against oppression; sustain those who are weary from efforts that bring no end to injustice. Restore hope where it has been lost, so that all may trust your love that reaches to the depths of pain and suffering. Amen. (adapted from Commemoration of the Emanuel Nine resources found at elca.org.)
Walking with you,
The Rev. Jeffrey Clements
Northern Illinois Synod, ELCA