Just three weeks before the July 7 attack on white police officers in Dallas, a group of people of different races and faiths gathered in the city’s Thanks-Giving Square, a landmark known for promoting gratitude in times of crisis. They offered prayers on the one-year anniversary of another racially charged act of domestic terrorism, the killing of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist.
Little did they know that a similar prayer service would soon be held at Thanks-Giving Square. Just hours after the shooting of police officers during a protest by a Black Lives Matter group, Mayor Mike Rawlings called on the city to gather there in a prayer vigil. The purpose, he said, would be “to bring our city together, to bring our country together, to heal wounds, not create them.”
People in Dallas may feel grief, fear, and loss after this tragedy, just like people in cities where innocent black men have been shot by police. And the main focus in the United States remains on the many ways to prevent such killings, such as better police training and more gun control.
Yet achieving such tangible solutions first requires a healing of a community broken by violence. Prayer is not an evasion of action but an initializing action. Dallas’s prayer vigil, like others in cities struck by violence, is a step toward that goal. It allows the city to affirm a common faith in the continuity of a relationship with the divine, a collective calling for grace and love to replace hate and sorrow.
Prayer services often rely on an expression of gratitude, which is why Dallas has its Thanks-Giving Square with its distinctive spiral chapel of stained-glass windows. The structure serves as a reminder of the need for constant gratitude. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “My thanksgiving is perpetual.”
Despite the horrific videos of the Dallas shootings, the most memorable images may be the selfies taken of police officers and protesters standing together during the march, just before the shooting began.
If the people of Charleston ever hold an anniversary service for the Dallas killings, they might be thankful for those images, which show the harmony that does exist, and can be sustained.