Two weeks ago our family was in Charleston, SC. We’d planned some time to break up our drive to Orlando with some distractions for our kids. Of course it was hot and humid. When our children were covered in ice cream and soaked in sweat, we headed off the main streets and over to Waterfront Park. It took about three seconds for my fully clothed children to jump into the fountain along with twenty other children.
Since then I’ve wondered if the 87-year old Susie Jackson brought her children and her grandchildren to play in this same fountain. I’ve wondered if she sat on that very same bench where I sat, just a few blocks from her church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal.
How different things are two weeks later. A sudden storm blew over Charleston, a chaos of violence and hatred. Two weeks after that storm claimed Susie Jackson’s life and the lives of eight of her fellow worshipers inside a place that she considered sanctuary, a place that was her own.
Ms. Jackson reminds me of the disciples in today’s Gospel text. They also knew about storms. We find them with Jesus on the shores of the sea. He has finished his teaching on the kingdom of God. He is no doubt exhausted from the crowds and preaching, and he is ready to cross to the other side of the Galilee. With him are former fishermen, men Jesus called from their work on this very lake, from boats just like the one they are in. These are men who knew the varieties of clouds and signs of danger in the wind, men who knew the difference between a terrible storm and a storm that would kill.
If the disciples knew their fishing ground, each inlet and fishing season, then Susie Jackson knew her church just as well. Ms. Jackson was a trustee of Emanuel AME, and a member of the choir. And she showed up for Bible study almost every Wednesday night.
While Ms. Jackson was not expecting the storm that erupted inside her church, she was no stranger to bad weather. Her life is a reminder that racism is not a storm quelled over time. Instead, it ebbs and flows. Ms. Jackson lived racism that was overt, and racism that went underground. She lived through Jim Crow segregation. She lived through the Tuskegee experiments. And in her late 70s Ms. Jackson lived in a country where 1 in 6 black men are incarcerated. In her 80s Ms. Jackson saw the number of hate groups in South Carolina grow to 19. In neighboring North Carolina that number ballooned to 24.
Yes, our black brothers and sisters know about storms.
The storm at Emanuel AME on Wednesday night is devastating. To know that the welcome and hospitality of this small group of brothers and sisters was met with such ferocious hostility. To imagine the heartbreak of those left behind. To think about those who will go to worship this morning, reflexively looking with fear at the stranger next to them. I cannot help but echo the words of the disciples who scramble against the waves as Jesus lies asleep in the boat. Do you not care? Do you not care that we are perishing? I want to wake this Jesus up. With the disciples, with my brothers and sisters at Emanuel, I want to scream at Jesus to wake up, to pay attention. Doesn’t he see that we are in trouble?
But I read something that convicted me of my desire to bring this prayer to God. These words were written by Crystal Lewis, a graduate student at Wesley Theological Seminary. She writes:
“I continue in this day of sadness and bewilderment with a heavy heart and with the conviction that we religious folks may, perhaps, need a moratorium on our talks with God— for a short time at least.
I understand, my religious friends and colleagues, how desperately you desire to pray, given the tragic nature of last night’s events. However, I have run out of prayers and only desire to ask you: Will you instead talk face-to-face with someone about white supremacy and racism? Are you willing to start a conversation about what the world needs in order to move forward in peace?
Is it possible that our prayers for God to somehow “fix” the world seem unheard because we don’t yet see ourselves as the answers to those prayers? And if so, how do we change our faulty perspective?”
Ms. Lewis challenges us to claim the power to calm seas that Jesus gives to the church. In her words I am reminded that in the Gospel of John Jesus tells his followers that they will do even greater acts than he. The body of Christ that is here now, the way that God will confront racism in our country, is through you and me.
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever,” says Jesus. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
We can boldly be Christ’s body for one another because we know that none of us is the savior. That work has been done. Jesus has accomplished bringing about the salvation of world. We are invited participate in the kingdom of God that is already here. We may be patterned after this Jesus who has chosen us as his body, has sent his Spirit to empower us, to bind us together, to silence the winds.
But I am reminded that, though we are one body, we have different work to do within this body. Many of us long for reconciliation. A few nights ago some of us here gathered to pray with others from Durham at St Joseph’s AME. At the end of that time locked arms and joined together in singing “We Shall Overcome.” We long to look at one another and say we are one.
As I read the Gospel text this week I was reminded that before Jesus rebuked the storm he had to wake up. Before he could confront the chaos that was surrounding them, beating down on them, threatening to take their lives he woke up. As Christ’s body on earth empowered by the Holy Spirit we can rebuke this storm, but before we can do the work of silencing this chaos we have to wake up.
This week my black brothers and sisters have told me that white Christians have work to do. What they have asked me to hear is that racism will continue to be news to the black community long after it falls off the national news cycle. They have asked us to wake up.
Waking up means we know how we got to this place. Waking up means truth-telling is a prerequisite to reconciliation. For those of us who call the Methodist church our home this begins with the very origins of racism in our church. Waking up means being truthful even with the painful parts of our past.
We have to know our past. We need to know how early Methodism’s anti-slavery resolve faltered under the thriving slave trade in America. We need to know that the African Methodist Episcopal Church resisted racism in the Methodist Church, what one writer describes as an “act of holy defiance.” The AME was founded in 1760 by Richard Allen who was born a slave in Philadelphia. After he purchased his freedom, Allen became an evangelist.
He worshiped at St George’s Methodist Church. Segregation was enforced both in and outside the walls of the church, and black and white parishoners had their own seating areas in the sanctuary. During this time the growing number of black worshippers began to worry white parishoners. One Communion Sunday a black man named Absalom Jones sent these worried white folk over the edge when he responded to the call to repentance. He wanted to kneel at the rail. He came down from the segregated galley and got to his knees. Panicked murmurs filled the sanctuary before he was yanked to his feet by a white trustee. Allen left, vowing never to return. He formed a church called Bethel Church for Negro Methodists. It is likely the first black church meeting in the United States.
In the same way Mother Emanuel AME was a response to racism in the Methodist church. Mother Emanuel AME was founded by black Methodists who left their church over the decision of their white-majority elder board to pave a garage over top of their black cemetery. Among those who joined them was a freed slave named Denmark Vesey who, in his spare time violated the city ordinance by teaching other black women and men how to read and write. Authorities raided Mother Emanuel and shuttered it after declaring it a school for slaves. Vesey later organized a failed slave rebellion out of the church. In response the town burned it to the ground. It was rebuilt by Vesey’s son until the city outlawed all-black churches in 1834.
Waking up also means self-examination of our contemporary stories, analyzing the systems in which we operate today, looking to see the ways in which the past is not past. What would it look like to ask our black friends and neighbors to name for us the ways they see racism operating in their schools and churches and workplaces and neighborhoods? What would it look like to learn the racial history of our city? What would it look like to participate in conversations about race, opening ourselves up to the uncomfortable possibility that we are more complicit in racism than we thought we were?
As I thought about being the body of Christ, of Jesus gift of the Advocate, it also made me wish Jesus was here. A few weeks ago we celebrated Ascension Day, the day we remember when the resurrected Jesus returned to the Father. In the Amish church this is the most important day of the year, but it is also a day of mourning. No one works and every person who can fasts. I’ve wondered if the reason for this tradition is that we long for Jesus. We long for a Jesus who can fix this. We long for the Jesus who can feed the hungry simply by breaking bread. We long for the Jesus who can remedy illness with a touch. We long for the Jesus who could end this storm with a word.
Instead Jesus promises us that he has given us everything we need. The Spirit working through us is enough. We together as Christ’s body are enough. What Jesus has done, what Jesus has defeated is enough. What we have been given is enough to confront the hard truths of our past, enough to navigate the complicated relationships and questions of our present, and enough to hope for a future where we can live the truth that “we are one.”
I mentioned that on Friday night some of us gathered at St. Joseph’s AME church as we were led in prayer by pastors from around our city. We sang and wept and read Scripture together. One of the pastors, I can’t remember who, prayed these words, “You didn’t say hell would not come against your Kingdom… you said it would not prevail. Help us to remember that.”
We are in the middle of a storm, brothers and sisters. It is a storm of racism and it has claimed the lives of nine more of God’s beloved, nine more who join us in making up Christ’s body. Hear their names:
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Rev. Sharonda Singelton
Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. Daniel Simmons
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Docter
O Lord, You didn’t say hell would not come against your Kingdom… you said it would not prevail. Help us to remember that. Help us to live it. Wake us up.