The Holy City: A meditation

I woke at 5:30 a.m. on June 17 the way I always do, stretching, savoring the morning smells of chicory in the coffee, and trying to squeeze in a few more minutes of sleep.

cover_forgiveness_smI failed. The cats were begging for food—the new puppy insistent for attention. The vision of everything I needed to accomplish in the garden before the heat entered its punishing phase started scrolling against the blank screen of my eyelids, and I couldn’t make it stop. I reached toward the nightstand, barely cracking my eyelids, intending to check the time and temperature on my iPad. But the first words I saw on the screen were the morning headlines from CNN… and they did not make sense.

“Nine killed in shooting at black church in Charleston.”

“Charleston?” I thought, I’m from Charleston. “Nine killed,” the words said. “A shooting … in a church?” My mind raced… Which church?

Dawn was just a whisper on the horizon. There was no one I felt I could call at that hour. So I rose—and went out into the garden. I went because there the stakes were straightforward and easy to understand. We had corn and beans and watermelons and six weeks without measurable rain. They needed water. We had Japanese beetles chewing the cannas and the lovely crimson zinnias I had grown from seed. They needed killing. We had cucumbers and tomatoes putting on a growth spurt because they loved the heat. They needed staking. Everything needed mulching. And it would soon be blazing, stinking, make-you-wanna-holler hot. So I went out and my body performed the repetitive motions needed until my shoulders ached and the sweat was pouring off me in red clay rivulets. I did these tasks methodically and well, and I was nearly done with them before I realized that God’s daily grace, extended through the simple act of contact with the soil, had eluded me. I was not at peace.

I didn’t actually break down, though, until after lunch when I was halfway to work. As I slowed the van to cross the one-lane bridge stitching the two halves of my country lane to the main road, keeping a sharp eye out for the neighbor’s geese, which fed on both sides of the road, the words nine dead and Mother Emanuel set off a reverberation and, in the aftershock that followed, something small and fragile fell off a shelf in my heart and just…broke. I did not care who had done this. What I was desperate to know—what I could not find out because no one at home was answering their phones—was which of my beloved had been sacrificed on the altar of this city’s 300-year-old hates?

The road narrowed to a ribbon, bloodied by memory—red cushions and dark wood, a sanctuary of immense size hosting weddings, baptisms, choir programs, funerals. When I was a girl, Mother Emanuel (I could almost see my mother’s lips forming the words) was the beating heart of a segregated city, the place where all our complex social networks converged: sororities and frats, the Links, the Jack and Jill, the   Eastern Star, all the churches with their stalwart names like Morris Brown, Calvary, Morris Street Baptist—the times, the places, the faces all blending into a single image of a time when black Charleston was one family, diverse, brawling, loving, at the center not the margins because “white flight” in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King’s visit (to Mother Emanuel), and a hospital workers’ strike had made the peninsula ours as it had not been since the Great Migration out of the South, ours as it had not been since Boundary Street was renamed for that architect of secession, Calhoun. Safe? Our haven? Violated.

Drowning in memory, I found myself swerving and clutching the wheel, frantic to keep the van in a straight line as I rocked and sobbed and howled NOOooooooooo! NOOooooooooo!

I did make it to the office that day. I did not meet with students. For the next 48 hours, I didn’t do much of anything but sit riveted alternately by the television and computer   screens … and weep.

It would be another 24 hours before Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten released the names of the Emanuel Nine. Before saying anything further, I must speak their names.

Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; the Rev. Sen. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; Myra Thompson, 59.

Mothers, teachers, nephews, freedom workers, warriors for the Lord. They included my sorority sister, Myra, of the Charleston Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, and sweet-faced Cynthia, who like my mother was one of the city’s few black librarians.

On June 17, they welcomed the stranger and the alien into their midst for Wednesday evening Bible study. They pored over scripture and shared insights for nearly an hour. The assassin is said to have found them “so nice” he nearly faltered in his mission. But as whatever demonic force he was wrestling with regained control, he pulled out the Glock he should not have been able to purchase and methodically, with premeditation and malice aforethought, gunned them, one after the other, down.

No sooner had his name and picture been published than an internet posse formed. It unearthed his domain name, “lastrhodesian.com,” and a manifesto that outlined his white supremacist beliefs, the sources of his radicalization, and his political aims. He chose “Mother Emanuel” deliberately and with care—the church had symbolic and historical weight for him as Denmark Vesey’s congregation. Here, he would sow seeds of terror hoping for a bloody harvest: a race war.

And in at least one heart—my own—he came damn near to succeeding.

Charleston likes to call itself the Holy City, because of its many churches. But being of the generation that integrated the city’s schools in the 1970s, the veneer of piety has always struck me as communion wafer thin, cracking easily to reveal the snarl behind the smiling façade.

A holy city? Perhaps if you’re speaking of the way it worships its own distorted image in a cracked mirror, the way it has crafted a highly selective and self-flattering history as its bible. Holy? Perhaps if you’re speaking of its idols—the mortuary landscape of “lost cause” memorials that cluster thick as flies in the historic district; the pint-sized battle flags that blossom as predictably on the graves of the long dead as the azaleas of early May.

I recall Charleston as a city of casual psychological violence. My senior year: in a bar crowded with rowdy underage drinkers, my friends are pulled aside and gruffly told, “get the n– out.” In my thirties: a glorious January day hand in hand with my love on lower King, our joy in the day and each other soured by the hate-filled eyes of a shop owner giving us to know we would not be served. In my forties: a summertime conversation with a regional manager from CVS. Yes, Ms. Hamilton, the pharmacist admitted it: she lied about the bathroom being broken. And the other customers were right, too. She routinely tells such lies to black customers. We’ve spoken to her, sternly… You won’t be…ummm, planning to sue, will you?

These are memories from casual visits over a nearly 30-year absence. A pinprick here, a slap there. Moving back represented a leap of faith for me—that despite having full knowledge of what might be awaiting, in a state that has never been too busy to hate, the proximity to family would make it all okay. On June 17, I received a roundhouse blow. And I came to know it was not okay. It might never again be okay.

Juneteenth fell two days after the massacre. Friends from far and wide were making the pilgrimage to Charleston, to join family, to lay flowers, to stand with people who knew without being told how assaulted they were feeling. My father was far away—in Salt Lake City at the Episcopal General Convention—so I stayed put in Laurens County, wrestling with hate.

As my Facebook feed filled with messages and memes about liberation—and pleas to save the red and blue rag—I found myself struggling with unfamiliar thoughts and emotions. “Why are they talking about the flag?” asked one bewildered woman on a Facebook page devoted to Charleston history. “The flag is history! They should leave it alone!” And in a moment of clarity, I discovered…I hated that woman. I hated her willful ignorance of the facts of my existence, hated her blithe assumption of the mantle of wronged innocence. I hated them all: the church-going ladies agreeing that somebody in that Bible study should have had a gun; the 11th generation blueblood thundering about his grandfather’s “sacrifice”;   the men blustering about “our” guns, our pride, our culture. I hated them all. And it felt… good.

I was conscious that this was wrong, that it was against all my values, everything I’d ever been taught or believed in. I was conscious   even   of a presence that was pleased with, gloating over, my slip-slide into darkness. I re call thinking, “What a victory for Satan it would   be,   Kendra, if you lost your religion over this.” But the hating… Well, it provided such unexpected comfort, such certainty. I had always known who the enemies were, after all. They had   never bothered to hide, except possibly from themselves. Now, rather than struggling to understand them, to forgive them, I was free to loathe them with every fiber of my being. And in my secret heart of hearts, I was reveling in that freedom.

Friends who had gone to Charleston, or who had never left, spoke of different emotions: an outpouring of love and com passion. They spoke of strangers weeping in each other’s arms, downtown office workers using their breaks to take water to those standing vigil. I was not comforted or convinced.   On June 21, a multiracial human chain 10,000 strong stretched across a bridge named for a noted flag-waver, holding hands and singing freedom songs, demanding that the flag come down from the Statehouse grounds. I teared up at the sight, but not enough to melt that chip of ice that hate had lodged in my heart.

Twenty-four hours later, the assassin stood before a Charleston magistrate and faced the kin of the men and women he’d slain. He looked withdrawn, his face an expressionless mask. Then the first of the family members stood to speak.

“I forgive you,” the daughter of Ethel Lance said. “You took something really precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”

“Repent. Confess,” said Anthony Thompson, speaking for Soror Myra Thompson’s family. “Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change your ways …”

For just a moment, he looked shocked—and then his face flattened into blankness once again. But the voices continued to speak, and I began to recognize the words and cadences of the liberation gospel of the A.M.E.

“You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts … and I’ll never be the same,” said Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders, before adding, “…may God have mercy on you.’’

Bethane Middleton-Brown said, “DePayne Doctor was my sister. And I just thank you Lord on the behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress and I acknowledge that I’m very angry. But one thing DePayne … taught me [is that] we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.” “I am a work in progress,” she had said. And with those words, I was released from the bondage that hate had laid upon my heart. Those stunning gestures of forgiveness—radical acts of grace that, in effect, extended the circle of the “beloved community” even to the most egregious act, the most heinous offender—healed me. This was the victory of the   liberation gospel, which for centuries saved our souls from the relent less hatred and violence that had for centuries been wielded against us. Just like that, in a personal miracle of salvation, I found myself restored to myself.

Later, much later, I learned the scripture the nine were studying that night was the Parable of the Sower, my favorite parable, the favorite, I like to imagine, of every gardener. “A farmer went out to sow his seed,” it begins…

“And as he was scattering it, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13: 3-9)

I think now, with the advantage of a several weeks’ hind sight, that Charleston indeed proved itself a holy city on the night of June 17. Not holy in the beauty of its buildings—but holy in terms of the power of the Spirit that dwelled inside one of them. The killer traveled over 100 miles to sow his seeds at Emanuel, a church with a nearly 200-year history of resistance to hate. There could have been no soil less friendly to the harvest he wished to reap.

And the Spirit of God moved that night.

Recall this. The assassin took nine lives: nine, a sacred number, a number of completion.

Imagine this: the nine entering that other world together. As spirits joined now to Spirit, seeing all things that had been and all that were to come, recalling the lesson they had been studying, in all its deepest significance. And now imagine this: the nine grasping the Wheel of Time and History, all nine pairs of hands…and together turning it.

Yes, the blow was grievous, and aimed at our collective hearts, but the assassin found no victory, not over Emanuel AME, not over my heart, and not, ultimately even, over the hearts of his white brothers and sisters. They, after all, have been the loudest voices clamoring to bring the flag that symbolized his hate down. As down it came, after an unimaginable series of events, on July 10.

So, a fire has swept through all our hearts, like the burning of canefields after harvest. There’s been a storm of smoke and fire, and now a layer of ash sits on the earth waiting for the rains. The seed that’s being planted—will it fall in the ruts beside the path or among thorns or on thin soil? Or will it take root in deep earth and bear fruit a hundredfold, as in the parable?

Only time will tell.

Kendra Hamilton All Saints Episcopal Church, Clinton, S.C. Trinity Episcopal Church, Charlottesville, VA Calvary Episcopal Church, Charleston