After the Tragedy

After the murders at Emanuel AME, I turned to silence, community and Scripture to help bear the pain of loss.

by William Miller
Illustration by Terri Scott

For me, faith has a complex new meaning in the days following the tragedy that occurred in a Bible study held at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. I remember walking through the door at home that evening after attending Vacation Bible School at the church I pastored and almost simultaneously receiving a text message from a friend asking if I had heard that there was a shooting down at Mother Emanuel AME Church. It caught me off guard because in these moments one rarely ever thinks that it could hit so close to home.

My first thought was that it must have been an incident on the same block, and only out of precaution did the authorities cordon off the entire block. But as more speculative messages circulated about what various individuals heard and the local news outlets began to run the story of shots being fired, it became clear that the church was in fact the very place where tragedy had struck.

Questions began to fill my mind: But weren’t they in Bible study? Who would dare do such a thing in God’s house? Is this a dream? The feeling was surreal. Within a short time my younger brother and I drove with two colleagues down to the church’s block, where everything was in a blur. Shortly thereafter, I remember the feeling in the room as family members and parishioners gathered at a neighboring hotel to await word from the mayor and police chief as to whether their deepest fears were true.

To say that I had great strength or a full sense of focus in the next hours, or was able to preach a clearly concise sermon designed to answer all of my parishioners’ questions, would be inaccurate. After all I knew four of the victims personally, including one who was a relative. I have been privileged to preach at that church and have also attended weddings, funerals and other celebrations. That church has always been a safe space; I never worried about violence darkening its steps.

In sharing with you how I responded to the tragedy’s impact on me, I hope someone else might be encouraged or find other ways to respond to tragedies that have come so very close to home for them, too. As the nation’s eyes turned to Charleston and a constant stream of images and news reports flashed across every outlet, I was experiencing sensory overload. So I made a conscious decision that I needed a mental health day. The Friday night and all day Saturday after the incident I unplugged from reading and responding to my social media feeds. Drained physically and emotionally, I needed to take a step back from the beautiful images of the people I had come to know over the years as I was reminded that their journeys on earth had now ended. I needed time away from social media as I tried to regain my focus. More important, I needed time away to be honest about my frustrations and to share them with God. In light of all we lost that evening and everything we heard in the following days, I remembered how important it was to remain balanced—never to ignore my feelings but to certainly keep them in context.

On Sunday I returned to social media, but I took time to think through how I would respond to questions of faith, God’s presence or absence, the legitimacy of unity after such an event, and whether forgiveness should be extended to Dylann Roof or others who think as he does. I discovered great benefit in taking time away from the multitude of opinions relating to current events, but I knew that as a distinctly Christian voice I would have to return at some point.

Even as I sought clarity and understanding through my meditation, I was reminded that I was not alone in my grief. Our individual thoughts are reflected in our actions, in the communities we create and families we build. As partners in the caring of creation, we cannot allow others to create silos of hate and venom that do not value the rest of creation but seek to destroy it. We must respond in a way that relies on our capacity to love but also holds folks accountable to such an extent that they too desire transformation. Therefore, on the following Sunday I spent time in intentional community. There were many persons who had entered the sanctuary anxious to gain strength from the presence of their faith family but also uncertain what impact the week’s events would have on their own security while in worship. Yet together, we offered communal prayers for the families and healing of the city.

I lifted Psalm 139 before the people to serve as the foundation of my message that day. I didn’t give a sermon in the traditional sense. But I lifted words of encouragement out of my meditation from the days prior when I intentionally retreated. The scripture ministered to me because it deals with everything we may feel during times of challenge. I shared some thoughts on what it meant to me at such a time. This particular psalm details a complex relationship between the author and God. The author acknowledges that God is well acquainted with his past history and that there is nowhere one can go where God’s presence is not already there. The spirit of God fills everything. I was reminded in our time of gathering that even in mourning, the spirit of God is with us. We have the power to choose between right and wrong. And when we choose the wrong, as Mr. Roof did when he broke the chain of human connectedness, God cries with us.

But like the author of Psalm 139 we must be honest that our first inclination in the stream of justice is to enact revenge. Out of his anger the author wishes to repay those who have done harm toward him with harm. When we hurt we may want to get even, and we may want others to feel what we feel. But what the psalmist does next caused me to reflect on what it means to be a builder of people.

There is a transparency on the part of the writer that is sobering but also prompts me to confront the imperfections of my faith. The author makes a request for God to perform a search on his soul. The psalmist expresses a desire to be like God; traveling in the “way everlasting” is a reminder that as God directed the symphony of creation, our task is to build humanity by repairing the broken. We have the power to shape a community that works to create, not to destroy. The most pressing question becomes: What will we do to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

Forgiveness is never easy. Yet it is something I always work toward because I am fully aware that holding hatred can be like a slow toxin that gradually poisons the soul. If we can repair the cracks in the wall that create evil, and the systems that lead to events like those that fell upon Charleston, then hate will never win.

Rev. William Miller is pastor of Bethel AME Church in Conway, South Carolina, and sits on the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC). At the time of the tragedy, he served as pastor at St. John AME Church in Cottageville, South Carolina, located in the legislative district served by the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, state senator and pastor of Emanuel AME Church who was assassinated during the murders. Rev. Miller lives in Charleston, South Carolina. 

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