by Jennifer Dunning
It was a church like others, though with a long, rich history. The 12 men and women were ordinary human beings who had stayed after services for Bible study that Wednesday night, as they often did. They welcomed the young stranger who joined them, expecting, perhaps, that he was searching for God or a loving extended family like theirs.
But suddenly the young man opened fire. And on June 17, the nation experienced yet another tragic racially-motivated killing, this time at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, S.C. Nine parishioners died. The oldest was Susie Jackson, 87, a choir member, and the youngest Tywanza Sanders, her 26-year-old nephew, who had tried to shield her.
They were remembered by Roosevelt Islanders on June 26 in a memorial at dusk on the Island pier. Residents and passersby prayed, spoke, and sang together. Nine glowing luminaria represented the Charleston victims, each with a photograph and a name: Jackson. Sanders. Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Emanuel’s pastor and a beloved South Carolina state senator. Cynthia Hurd, a library manager. Ethel Lee Lance, a church sexton. Myra Thompson, a Bible study teacher. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, a pastor and university administrator. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a pastor, speech therapist, and high school track coach. Daniel Simmons, a pastor.
Organized and conducted by Sherie Helstien, “Remembrance for Those Killed at Emanuel AME Church” was modeled on a Quaker service, with opportunities for all to speak out and be prayerfully silent at will. The memorial began with a prayer by Father Thomas Kallumady, former pastor of Roosevelt Island’s St. Frances Cabrini Church. Father Thomas recalled growing up in India, his school a place where Christian, Muslim, and Hindu children studied together in unselfconscious harmony.
Some 60 men, women, and children of all ages and races listened, mourning those killed in Charleston and wondering at the strength of their survivors. They spoke of racism and color-blindness, of hatred and forgiveness, and of the great need for all to acknowledge and speak to their common humanity.
Every day, the toll of violence against Black Americans grows greater. “How many more?” a button worn by one memorial participant asked simply. In 1999, New York City wept and came to a halt for a moment at the murder of Amadou Diallo. Now, after the initial horror, we are numb as the names roll by: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, young Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Grey, Sandra Bland, and so many others.
What can be done to confront and heal the murderous rage that seems to have taken over this country? A first step is not so complicated, perhaps. Rev. Olusegon Obed, pastor of the Dayspring Church on Roosevelt Island, urged Islanders to recognize common humanity, if only by a meeting of the eyes or a smile as we pass our neighbors on Main Street.
“We are all born to belonging,” the activist and writer Mab Segrest wrote in a meditation on the South African term ubuntu and its translation, “born to belonging,” in her book of the same name. What makes us human, she wrote, is simply our “just and mutual relationship to one another.”
Diana Armenakis, a longtime Roosevelt Island resident who grew up in Charleston near Emanuel, remembers the city as being racist, certainly, but unique in its way. “There is a difference that I felt in a lot of African Americans, growing up in Charleston, in the area. There’s a pride in Christianity, a deep abiding faith that I don’t think you find anywhere else. I think the white population is also somewhat different from the rest of South Carolina and the other Southern states, in part because it is a port city with more contact historically with people from Europe and Asia, and also because of its various ethnic communities.” Emanuel’s welcome to the stranger that Wednesday night is “something they would have done,” Mrs. Armenakis said. “They did all the time. There were a lot of whites who were part of the AME Church, which is not usual.” Also unusual, she believes, was the response of the survivors. “It’s beyond my comprehension of forgiveness. It’s a living of Christianity that I don’t think is done by most Christians in this country.”
Roosevelt Island, she said, is something of an oasis. “I think we’re an island of complainers. But we have figured out a way of living together that I think people take for granted. We have such a rich, diverse group of people from different backgrounds, and we pretty much just do it. There are issues. But in terms of getting along, I think it’s amazing, though our unique population will probably get watered down, the bigger it gets.”
“Remembrance for Those Killed at Emanuel AME Church” ended with the singing of “Amazing Grace.” There were affectionate, complicit smiles at the memory of President Barack Obama hesitantly singing the hymn at Rev. Pinckney’s funeral earlier in the day. Church-lady voices soared above the crowd as light dimmed over the East River on the warm and breezy evening. A few people left at that point, but most stayed on, embracing one another and talking quietly, a community like others across the nation reaching out to the community of worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and honoring the loved ones they had lost.
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