Yesterday morning I got up early, sat down at the computer, and thought about what to post for the day – an amazing recipe for popcorn tacos I had tried over the weekend, our latest garden photos, a recap of our event packed weekend, what the girls have been reading this summer, a nice juicy update on the dining room / stair hall progress. It was not to be. I took one look at the headlines yesterday morning about the shootings at Emanuel AME in Charleston and then I shut the computer off and walked away.
The whole day was surreal. I talked to M about it briefly in the morning, before waking the girls and getting them off to camp. I texted briefly with my father mid-morning, because I can speak freely with him about whatever I need to say. The two people in my office that I would generally open up to about what I’m thinking are not currently at work, and so I sat at my desk, listening to NPR, checking in for updates occasionally.
I let this sit in me for a day and a night, and this morning my words are not measured or eloquent. But I will not let that stop me from saying something. I worried that sharing the ways in which this affected me would sound hollow and contrived. Let me carefully break down the word “affect” here – there is no attachment of victimhood to me, there is no defensiveness, I am not being attacked, my religion is not being attacked, this is not about me. I use the word “affect” to describe the way this sits in my head and my heart and the pit of my stomach – the way it should rest in every single one of us.
When I saw the images of Mother Emanuel church I saw my own church, Grace United Methodist Church, another grand, historic church that straddles one of the starkest demarcation lines of race in our city, a north-south dividing line that anyone living here can call by name. On Sundays we worship a congregation that is very diverse, drawing from all over the region, equally black and white, as well as drawing a number of international students and professors from the neighboring university. Our pastor is African-American, as well as some of our church staff. As the victims’ identities were released yesterday my heart broke into a million pieces. I sit with these men and women each week, just as I sit next to lone college students that wander in with a backpack. The motto of the Methodist Church is “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that my anxiety level is raised as I anticipate what this Sunday holds, and how we must now dig deeper to overcome our fears and misgivings and still be open, and welcoming, and free.
But I cannot tolerate the call to arms in defense of religious freedom. Christianity was not attacked on Wednesday. Black men and women were targeted for being black. We can allow ourselves to ache for the disruption of life in the peaceful setting of a church sanctuary, just as we attach the same feelings of safety and sanctuary to a kindergarten class that explodes into gunfire or the finish line of a marathon that is pierced with flying shrapnel. But we cannot use this idea of sanctuary to detach this incident from any others, to detach it from our neighborhoods, our sidewalks, our parks, our swimming pools. We cannot use the word “Loner”, as was used in the headline on the copy of The Washington Post I saw this morning, to isolate this event from an unending series of events. This is not a stand alone event. We cannot feign shock at the idea that friends and family of this man knew of his beliefs and intentions for months and said nothing without seriously examining the infinite number of times we’ve let racist comments from family members or co-workers or friends slide, unchecked. We cannot call an event like this “unbelieveable” when we’ve allowed our obsession with arming ourselves cloud any sense of rational thought about the idea of what the word “sanctuary” really means. We cannot ignore the history of this country, and the unspeakable violence that is continually perpetrated by the powerful on the powerless.
I come to this writing place as a form of sanctuary. I describe our walks in the garden, the food on our counter, the roof over our head as places of sanctuary. Although I draw from the spiritual roots of my family and call myself a Christian, I practice a quieter kind of faith, and I seek out sanctuary in many places, inside and outside the walls of my church. I believe in the practice of being open, and I think of it as a lifelong practice. Although we’ve consciously rooted ourselves in places where we are in the minority, I acknowledge my privilege in being able to craft my world as a sanctuary, and my ability to move freely within it. I lose absolutely nothing in this acknowledgement, but my responsibility does not end there. The shootings in Charleston have been called “unspeakable”, but they are anything but. Please speak up on the issue of racism (and terrorism), loudly and clearly, and call it what it is.