Tragedy and Hope

Wednesday evening Bible studies are ubiquitous in American Christianity and in particular in the South. Regardless of denominational affiliation or the tone of one’s skin, churches open their doors on Wednesdays and gather as church. Since the conversation about “nones” has dominated the headlines for most of the past several months, the defining mark of religious participation in all survey data is the number of times a person attends a place of worship during the week. Wednesdays matter to the life of the American church.

Like all surveys on church participation, Wednesday attendance has declined. Some churches have decided that Sunday evening services, once thought to be sacrosanct, are no longer helpful since folks have already attended church Sunday morning (if you are a young pastor and would like to have your Sunday evening to spend with your family, be aware that this gathering time is still a hot button issue of congregants over the age of fifty, so even its disappearance does not come readily). But Wednesdays hold on for Protestants in the American South. On Wednesday evening this week, members and non-members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church gathered for Bible study.

For two hundred years, a group of determined and independent African Americans have gathered for worship in “Mother Emanuel” in Charleston, S.C. Formed out of a determination to allow free blacks and the enslaved to hold their own worship services due to second-class status in the Methodist congregation, Emanuel was the first A.M.E. congregation south of Baltimore. Its growth during a period of intense evangelical activity across Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist denominations in the South indicated a strong tendency for African Americans to gather and worship under their own leadership. In the schizophrenic nature of southern white Christians, the tremendous growth within the ranks of free blacks and enslaved peoples signaled the power of the Gospel and raised fear as hundreds of non-whites gathered multiple times per week. What if they planned an insurrection? In 1822, those fears allegedly proved true as Denmark Vesey reportedly helped plan an uprising to throw off the oppressors, in much the same way the Haitians and Americans had done in the preceding fifty years. The presumed rebellion, which never occurred, was crushed with the execution of Vesey and thirty-four other insurrectionists and another thirty-five deported from the state. For good measure, white Charlestonians burned Emanuel to the ground. The building gone the congregation remained strong and rebuilt. Its presence in Charleston served as a reminder that the congregation’s spirit would not be defeated. Throughout its two-hundred year history, Emanuel A.M.E. Church has stood as a beacon of hope and protest, becoming a movement church during the civil rights struggle with leaders such as Septemia Clark showing the way. Martin Luther King, Jr., and SCLC ministers’ presence in Charleston shone a national spotlight on this congregation, which was already fighting the good fight and had for its entire history.

And on a Wednesday, they met. The small group gathered for their Bible study. For those raised in churches, these meetings are as much for fellowship as study, but both matter in the life of a congregation and its people. People need fellowship. Church members need to be reminded that there are fellow travelers on this journey of faith, so they show up to be lifted into the presence of the divine through their presence with one another. A second trait of these communities is that they always embrace the stranger among them. In evangelical churches, folks who fail to greet visitors are shamed because the Gospel tells us to welcome the stranger and, when we are honest, because numbers matter. At Emanuel Wednesday night, there was a visitor. He looked different but that does not matter in a congregation and would not have mattered to the hearty folks who gathered on Wednesday. He sat among them, among their hospitality, and conspired to kill them. His hate so great that he wanted someone to live to tell the story so others would know why he did it. He is a terrorist, striking at people in their place of comfort and everydayness. And yet, this congregation, and sadly African Americans more broadly, have known this terror for its entire existence. The threat of terror to white southerners through possible slave rebellions bought swift and mostly disproportionate injustice. For every perceived threat of violence by African Americans against whites, there are numerous examples of real violence by whites against African Americans. In American history, one of those targets has been churches and folks who worship there. Wednesday night was one more example of that shameful behavior. Enough.

What does the JSR have to do with this issue? Why would a peer-review journal enter these troubled waters and raise a concern or assert a position? We have thought about this issue quite a bit over the past couple of days. In other places in this journal, we have noted that our format means we can be more than a traditional peer-review journal. We remain dedicated to providing the best scholarship on the field of southern religion and forging new ways of understanding for the study of religion in the context of the American South. But it is also clear that JSR can serve a broader purpose; the journal can be a space for the public to turn to for expert understanding of both the region’s past but also its present in these situations. There has to be a place in our format for engaging topics important to us as they occur. The attack at Emanuel A.M.E. Church Wednesday night has larger implications for the study of southern religion. People lost their lives in the one place they sought refuge from the chaos of the world, but that story has a long history in the region. A young man’s pathological worldview caused him to see folks who treated him as a welcomed guest as a threat to his security. The same religious framework that encourages us to embrace the stranger worries about what outsiders will do and sees them as a threat. We have got to get better at understanding both impulses. The Journal of Southern Religion, as a multidisciplinary journal, has the ability to tackle this kind of subject and we are looking for folks from all fields who examine these kinds of issues in scholarly way to help the field and a broader public better understand why and how these kinds of tragedies occur. We, however, am open to creating new ways to work beyond the peer-review format to become a space that engages subjects of interest to southern religion in a critical way to shine a light on the region, its past and present. We must do more.

For events unfolding in Charleston concerning the shooting and Emanuel A.M.E., I recommend you follow Charleston’s The Post and Currier.

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