A black church's road to recovery

The mass killing at a historic black church in Charleston is a needless tragedy, but one that triggers a strong tradition in black churches: forgiveness.

Reuters
People gather outside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after the street was re-opened a day after a mass shooting left nine dead during a Bible study at the church in Charleston, South Carolina June 18.

For many African-American Christians, the traditional black church in the United States has long had two distinct religious purposes. It has been a safe meeting place where blacks can feel most free. And it is a place of worship to learn the wisdom of collective forgiveness for the wrongs done to blacks. 

On Wednesday, a gunman temporarily shattered the freedom long found at one of America’s oldest black churches, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, S.C. He killed nine people during a Bible study, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a man known as a graceful comforter to all.

But the killer failed to diminish the spirit of forgiveness in Charleston’s black community, the kind that heals by letting go of anger and that helps overcome any indignity. Within a day of the killing, prayer vigils and a memorial service at another AME church emphasized the strong tradition of forgiveness that has marked black churches, especially in the South.

If Mr. Pinckney were able to speak at Thursday’s service, he might have repeated the words he told the The Post and Courier newspaper in 2010: “Loving God is never separate from loving our brothers and sisters. It’s always the same.”

The type of African-American Christianity that grew out of slavery and other hardships is known for its emphasis on God’s mercy more than His judgment. This has been a source of strength for black Christians in their ministry and their public activism against slavery, Jim Crow laws, and modern forms of discrimination. Two scholars, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, write that black churches have served as “the cultural womb of the black community.”

Worship and civic engagement have been closely entwined in many black churches. This is because they often focus on the words of Jesus that he came to “proclaim release to the captives and ... to let the oppressed go free.” By gathering together for worship, blacks gain an experience of collective freedom. This has helped many pastors, such as Martin Luther King Jr., play a role in civic life. Pinckney was a state senator and recently led an effort in the state legislature to have police wear body cameras. 

All of Charleston came together to mourn the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church. “There is a lot of prayer in this state,” said South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. This mass murder may not be easy to forgive. But for the sake of healing, forgiveness is a necessity.

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