ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON STATE OF FORMATION, AN ONLINE PUBLICATION FOR EMERGING RELIGIOUS AND ETHICAL LEADERS WHICH WAS FOUNDED AS AN OFFSHOOT OF THE JOURNAL OF INTERRELIGIOUS STUDIES, HOUSED AT CIRCLE, A SHARED CENTER AT HEBREW COLLEGE AND ANDOVER NEWTON THEOLOGICAL SCHOOL.
I logged onto Facebook Tuesday night, about to post a “Ramadan Mubarak!” wish for all my Muslim friends. And then, scrolling down my news feed, I saw it—the news that a white man had entered a black church in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, and opened fire, killing nine people.
“Terrorism,” one of my friends wrote in her post about it. And, as the fear and grief flooded my veins, I knew she was right. I started contacting my family and friends, trying to make sure everyone was alright. I thought about beloved teachers and parents and elders who might have been there for a Wednesday evening bible study. Relatives of my friends. The teachers and parents at the all-black school my father used to work at downtown. Pillars of the community, with wise words and life experience. Perhaps even children, running down the aisle and laughing. The news is still coming out about the victims as I write this, but we know at least one of them: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, South Carolina state senator and pastor, an advocate for justice and a recent leader in the movement against police brutality in South Carolina.
I was crying. I remembered how, not too long ago, I was in Selma for the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement’s march there. Old-timers told stories of the bomb threats, of the Birmingham church bombing engineered by the KKK which killed four little black girls and injured 22 other people. That was 1963. This is 2015. The headline is still a white man attacking a black church—a church with one of the oldest black congregations in the South and a historic source of black resistance (one of its founders organized a major slave rebellion and was executed for it).
Church. Church. Sanctuary. A sacred space for beloved community. A place, more than any other, where violence and bloodshed should not happen. We like to believe that a place of worship is a safe space. But events like those Birmingham church bombings or the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 or this shooting in Charleston remind us that hatred can permeate even our holy of holies.
So how do we keep such places safe? Through my grief at the Charleston church shooting, I also felt frustration. I know (in fact, I wrote about it here on State of Formation) that the police shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in North Charleston earlier this year—and the renewed sense of the need for justice and the upsurge in #BlackLivesMatter activism—irked many white people in the Charleston area. “Don’t protest. Don’t make us look like Ferguson,” they wrote, complaining about the marches and the protestors.
So it was with a sinking feeling that I read this news of a white man killing in a black church. The details have not all come out yet, but I cannot help but suspect that such an atmosphere of animosity and disdain contributed to this man’s decision to cause terror among the black community. Perhaps he felt like he was doing the thing so many people wanted to do but didn’t have the guts to. Perhaps his mind was twisted, but perhaps the water he was swimming in directed the way it twisted. I keep seeing people posting things like “We can never know why he did it” and I can’t stop pointing to a system of racism and oppression where black lives seem not to matter.
How can we make this better? How can we make the spaces of marginalized people safer? I can’t help but wonder whether this would have happened if the responses of many more white churches to violence against black people had been stronger solidarity.
The media has been all abuzz over Rachel Dolezal, the disgraced NAACP leader in Spokane who pretended to be black (though she was born white) as she worked for racial justice. This is not the way to be in solidarity—please, leave the blackface behind. It pains me to see, however, the glee that conservative commentators have gotten out of her strange story—proof of how white people working for racial justice are just filled with “white guilt” and “trying to be black.”
Her story has obscured the work that others are doing for racial justice. My own Unitarian Universalist faith is considering “Supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement” (initiated by our Youth Caucus leadership) as an Action of Immediate Witness at our national conference. Many people of faith have marched, advocated, and volunteered for #BlackLivesMatter movements. This needs to keep happening, wider and wider.
I’m thinking again about the irony that I was going online to post about Ramadan when I saw the news of the church shooting. I’m thinking about parallels. How the media would have immediately labeled the gunman “a terrorist” if he had been Muslim (or brown-skinned). How he would have been called “a thug” if it had been a black man. About how religious minorities—be they Muslim or Sikh or Jewish—must fear for the safety of their religious sanctuaries. About how black lives, in church or anywhere on the streets of America, must fear brutality and a devaluing of life. About how, in fact, 23% of American Muslims are black. About how each of those black lives lost in that Charleston church on Wednesday night mattered—and still matter.
Solidarity. Beloved community. These are the things we need, to create a world filled with more love. So Ramadan Mubarak, my friends. Blessed Ramadan. Whether you are Muslim or not, may you take this time to be intentional. May you grieve the dead, as so many will be doing. May you pray and seek justice. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote while sitting in a Birmingham jail in 1963, only a few months before that tragic church bombing in the same city, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
No one is free until we are all free. We are all interconnected. Injustices affect us all. Across religions, races, and divisions of all kinds, this is a truth that must unite us. There will be no sanctuary until we make it so.
Amen, and blessed be.