It was our privilege and honor to visit the Emanuel African Methodist Church (known as Mother Emanuel) in Charleston, South Carolina on our first visit to the city this fall. Standing on the sidewalk just to the left of its front door, I found myself so overcome I asked my wife if I could give something like a drash (Hebrew for sermon or textual interpretation) right there.
She listened and this is what I said.
“We are standing now in front of one of the most important structures in America, a house of worship where, for over a century, we have entered the struggle over what it means to be an American, what promises were made at our founding and what promises were broken. That struggle all so often is really an attempt to insist on the repair of those broken promises.
At times, right here, that struggle has been in victory, like when this congregation and this church were at the center of freedom struggles during both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. And at times it has been in horrific defeat as it was that Wednesday Night in June right here, only 8 years ago.
On that evening, 9 members of the the staff and congregation of Mother Emanuel gave their lives for a principle so important to whom we are as a nation that it is in our very first Amendment, the freedom to worship and the freedom to gather. They invited a nervous stranger to join them in prayer on the idea that a house of worship here in America does not close its doors to anybody. And they paid for their patriotism with their lives.
As much as we have to take in the full horror of that evening and of the senseless loss of those 9 precious Americans, we can look up at this beautiful building and say that whatever misbegotten evil Dylan Roof thought he was carrying out, he failed. Pathetically so.
At best, Dylan Roof will spend the remainder of his meaningless waste of a life in a dark cold cell. And while he does, at 110 Calhoun St in the city Dylan Roof wished he had grown up, stands Mother Emanuel, tall, proud, gleaming white against a cloudless autumn sky. Still serving this community, still ministering to the sick and desperate, still a pillar of Charleston, this pillar of the confederacy, still led by this city’s black citizenry and still reminding the rest of us, from near and from far who have come to pay our respects of what it truly means to be an American.
We are honored and humbled to be here. And we thank them for having us.”