It shouldn’t be a surprise that Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., has taken an unspeakable crime and made it the occasion for an astonishing Christian witness.
In an unforgettable scene at the bond hearing last week for Dylann Roof, whose own uncle mused about flipping the switch for his execution after he gunned down nine people at an Emanuel Bible study, tearful family members of the victims told Roof that they forgive him and that he should repent.
They were voices of love responding to hate, of unbelievable mercy and forbearance in the face of cruelty and murderous provocation, of an almost miraculous faith.
In his sermon at Emanuel the Sunday after the shootings, the Rev. Norvel Goff Sr. said members of the media wondered how the family members were capable of such heroic grace, before declaring they wouldn’t be mystified if they knew the true “daddy” of those families, God the father.
Goff’s performance was itself extraordinary — exuberant, joyful, unifying and supremely confident that “no weapon formed against us shall prosper,” just days after Roof had wielded a murderous weapon within the church’s very walls.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or “Mother Emanuel,” as it is fondly known, has an honored place in the history of the black church in America, which is one of the glories of our civil society. Betrayed by white churches blinkered by race and beholden to the system of slavery, African-Americans forged their own churches in circumstances of repression and profound injustice.
The founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church roughly 200 years ago was Richard Allen. Born a slave in Delaware, he converted to Methodism as a teenager and immediately began to preach to everyone around him. He bought his freedom (his master himself converted and came to believe slavery was wrong) and landed in Philadelphia, where he and other blacks attended St. George’s Methodist Church.
The story goes that a black parishioner was lifted from his knees during a prayer by white trustees who wanted to remove him to a black section of the church — and all the black worshippers walked out. Thus was eventually born a denomination that became a pillar of the black community, “a center of gravity for social organization, economic cooperation, educational endeavor, leadership training, political articulation, and religious life,” as Albert Raboteau writes in his book about the black church, “A Fire in the Bones.”
The story of the black church, the “invisible institution,” in the antebellum South is profoundly moving. Church meetings held in secret, with whispered sermons. Preachers so eager to share the word they would they would pretend to read from Scripture even if they didn’t have a Bible. The hymns aching with hope. The focus on the story of Exodus and its promise of ultimate freedom in the Promised Land. (“O Canaan, sweet Canaan/I am bound for the land of Canaan.”)
Exodus, of course, had an unmistakable relevance to people held in bondage in the Land of the Free. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church itself was burnt down and suppressed prior to the Civil War after a founder, Denmark Vesey, was caught planning a slave revolt.
A century or so later, in a remarkable turnabout, the same black church that had been marginalized for so long in America would change the country forever. It lent the civil-rights movement a prophetic sense of urgency, much of its idiom and foot soldiers. As Albert Raboteau writes, civil-rights rallies often began in black churches and “followed a pattern consisting of song, prayer, Scripture reading, discussion of goals and tactics, and an exhortation that frequently sounded like a sermon.”
While we mourn with Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, we also should marvel at what it represents and at the power of its example. May it stand always as a testament to the American story in all its shame and majesty, and to the better angels of our nature.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.