This morning we attended Sunday service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) church in Charleston, South Carolina. A year and a half ago, nine members of their congregation, including the pastor, were gunned down by 22-year old, white supremacist, Dylann Roof. Last month, Roof was sentenced to death.
Since its inception in 1818, Emmanuel A.M.E. had always stood as a symbol of black freedom in America. Throughout its history, the church has served as both meeting place and spiritual home for African American activism, from anti-slavery uprisings to civil rights protests, and has hosted speeches by black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.
Shortly after 9 am, we entered the storied church through the side door. After passing police inspection of our bags, we climbed up a steep narrow stairwell, welcomed along the way by friendly parishioners, and entered into the bright and spacious chapel area. We seated ourselves in the fourth pew of the center aisle. Sitting in front of us was an elegant, silver-haired, African-American lady wearing a shimmery, gold, snake-skin patterned blazer. She asked us where we’re from.
“New York City! My husband and I were stuck there once. In a blizzard, in 1996. We were going to take a 22-hour direct flight from JFK to South Africa. I don’t envy you those cold winters.” Despite the initial delay, they had a grand time on their trip. I asked her when she’s planning on visiting South Africa again.
“Oh no. I’m too afraid now.” I asked her why. I expected to hear about the lengthy flight, the troublesome airport check-in procedures, or even some ailment complicated by air travel. She shook her head, “I’m afraid they won’t let me back in the country.”
This lady, whose forebears were one of the earliest people to come to America, a bona fide American, is fearful that she may be banned, like an immigrant. She told me she’s afraid we had elected for president a man who didn’t understand the country’s needs, and that he’d already done damage in the first three weeks. She also found Congress to be…
“Spineless!”, I interjected, eager to throw in my measly two cents. She nodded.
She told me that her husband is a retired circuit court judge, her son an active circuit court judge, and her grandson a law student. “The problem with Congress”, she told me, “is they’re too old and comfortable. We need new blood in the government. The country has changed, and we need in leadership young people with new ideas and energy, who understand what this country really needs.”
Before long, we were swept up by the transcendent gospel choir, dropped back to earthly concerns by the good reverend’s fiery sermon, then buoyed by cries of “Yes, Lord! Hallelujah!”. By the end of service, I was breathless and overwhelmed.
Shuffling out of the pew, I was reminded of the eulogy given by President Obama a year and a half ago, before this same congregation. I felt a lump in my throat as I recalled his rendition of “Amazing Grace”, channeling the pain of the congregation, and with his slightly out-of-tune singing, leading them through.
On our way out the main door, we were greeted by Reverend Manning and by Dr. Brenda Nelson, who had given the scripture lessons during service. I fumbled through an explanation of our trip through North Carolina, and the visit to the Raleigh photo exhibition about Dr. King, and that it just happened to be Black History month.
Dr. Nelson peered at me – with deep brown eyes that had witnessed 250 years of slavery, eyes that had persevered through 150 years of segregation, eyes that were all too aware of an America whose heavy conscience is carried by its black citizens – and she smiled, “You’re doing your journey.”