Susan Baller-Shepard: Thank You, Mother Emmanuel


To pull a trigger is easy. Clay pigeons flung out in an arc, hit them one by one, pop, pop, pop, a child at summer camp. To pull a trigger in the United States has too often been child's play. Most recently, by someone barely old enough to buy alcohol.

What is hard, is forgiveness. In fact, to mention forgiveness in the same week as the killing spree in Charleston, South Carolina? That seems incomprehensible. Killing people in cold blood in a sacred space, trespassing on holy ground, bringing horror to a place devoted to the hard work of faith and reconciliation? It's unthinkable. Yet, as the killer was being arraigned, family members of those murdered, said they forgave the killer, they asked for God's mercy.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words seem timely, still,

"Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, 

adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. 

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. 

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."1

I talk with my Major World Religion students about ahimsa, non-violence, or "doing no harm," ascribed to by both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. We discuss, "Can it work?" Can non-violence --a concept found in many world religions-- actually promote change for the better?

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, "Mother Emanuel," has a long history of doing the right thing, practicing faith in the midst of grave threats. They're connected to history, and to a God who acts in history, deeply drinking from the well of God, as Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

There is much I don't fully grasp. Reading a physics book recently, I was struck by Minkowski space, or Minkowski spacetime, which has the three dimensions of space along with the dimension of time to form a four-dimensional manifold, it's the mathematical space setting in which Einstein's theory of special relativity works. It's different than three dimensions, because of this time dimension. I don't fully understand it, nor do I fully understand the faith of those still standing at Mother Emanuel's, after the horrors they've faced there. What I do know is that both relate to time in unique ways.

For those standing outside a faith tradition, it's hard to grasp, sometimes, the river of living water that flows within people of great faith. This living water sustains them through hate, terror, affliction, pain. It seems unfathomable. In Charleston, the Ashley and the Cooper Rivers come together, as they become, together, part of the Atlantic Ocean. Mother Emanuel's faith shows those of us watching how vibrant this river of life is within its members, reminds us how vibrant it has been over time, in history. What does it mean that this faith community continues to rise, after tragedies are inflicted upon them by other human beings? How strong must this source be within them, that keeps them rising, decade after decade, century after century?

As a clergy person, I've watched people stand back up, after life has pummeled them. I've stood beside parents burying their children, sat on the bedside of friends whose bodies have been ravaged by disease, held the hands of the dying, and watched this mighty river sustain people, uphold people, in their darkest hours. I have watched, repeatedly, this mighty river of love win in the end. Love gets to have the last say, it's the added dimension.

Yes, knees buckle, yes, there are heaving sobs of sorrow, and sleepless nights, but still I see people rise in the morning to face another day, with courage and strength beyond imagining. This week we've been witness to the faithful history and strength of the people of Mother Emanuel. We pray to God, who is in and beyond Deep Time and Space. We call to the Ancient of Days, to the One who "makes all things new," asking that "the glory of the Lord might be the rear guard" to the grieving, asking God's presence to join those in sorrow, in this time.

"We shall overcome" continues to be a prayer and a question in light of the June 17th atrocity. The question many have, in faith, is one the Psalmist asked, "How long, O Lord... how long?" The question each of us has to ask ourselves is, what is our role now, in this time? What do we need to do in light of this?

"So teach us to count our days

that we may gain a wise heart."--Psalm 90:12

"As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'"--John 7:38

1 The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, pp. 62-63 (1967).

Follow Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard on Twitter: