It is a typical Wednesday night bible study. A guest arrives and everyone opens their hearts to make certain this stranger feels welcomed and embraced. Present at the bible study were four members of the pastoral staff, the elderly church sexton, a young man who had recently graduated from college, a matriarch of the church, a librarian who had spent her life opening up the world through books, and an Episcopal Vicar’s wife. After an hour of scripture and prayer, the guest declares his intent, pulls out a gun and begins shooting.
I am not of African descent. My ancestors arrived from Scotland, England, and France sometime in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They settled in Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia and eventually moved their way to Arkansas. They fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World Wars I & II. They owned slaves and married Native Americans. As a child, I remember seeing remnants of participation in the Klu Klux Klan. My grandfather’s wholesale house had a bathroom and a drinking fountain for “Coloreds.” I heard the word “nigger” on a regular basis and started my education in segregated schools. And yet, my parents, in spite of their own prejudices, insisted that my brothers and I treat all people with respect and equality. Desegregation began timidly with “freedom of choice” when I was in the fourth grade. My mom made sure that my birthday parties included every little girl in my class regardless of color.
The courts required full integration in the eighth grade so my district closed all the black schools in town and we were forced to find a way to navigate our way in a new world. It was not easy. The black schools gave up their rich heritage as Washington Hornets to become Rogers Rams, Barton Wildkittens, and El Dorado Wildcats. There was racial tension that sometimes overflowed into fights and walkouts but we moved through it. Occasionally, we got the courage to talk about it but most the time we muddled through it, allowing our common enthusiasm in sports, band, choir, and other school activities to help us move past our differences and experience our common humanity. While I wish it had been more, it was enough to bind us together so decades later as we gather for class reunions, we are able to celebrate our lives as parents, grandparents, and humans beings who share the same hopes and dreams for our world. I am and always have been a gun owner who believes that hunters are some of our best conservationists and that if we were able to put aside the commercialization of gun ownership, responsible gun owners would be capable of writing effective gun laws. After full disclosure, my heart is broken and my determination to strive for God’s justice and mercy is without hesitation.
I grieve today for the families of Emanuel AME. We are all a part of a rich heritage of Methodism. The AME and CME churches are a reminder of the bigotry of early Methodists; a bigotry that remains even today in a mutual heritage that actively seeks reconciliation in the name of our God whose very nature is defined by a love that is unearned and is without labels. I grieve for my country that lacks the moral courage to repent of the subtle and obvious ways we draw lines and make judgments about people who we perceive are “not like us.”
But today, what pierces my heart and drives me to my knees is the bond I share with three of the victims. Yes, I identify with the others in the room – the senior pastor, the older associate pastor, the church staff, the matriarch. and the librarian – but it is my sisters in ministry that make this truly personal. The victims include two female pastors and a preacher’s wife. These were women who, like me, have given their lives to vocational ministry. They have struggled with the balance of family and ministry and they have struggled with the traditional expectations and condemnations of those who still believe all women are second class citizens as a consequence of the actions of the first Eve. They were faithful to a call that required them to take a stand against a narrow religious culture that devalues what God has chosen to use to further God’s Kingdom. They gave their lives to serve and it turned out to be costly in a way they could not have anticipated. They are my sisters and their lives mattered as women, as mothers, and as witnesses of the Good News. I pray for their churches, I pray for their children, and I pray that we will all stop for a moment, take out our rakes, and begin to remove the lines we have drawn in the sand against one another.