Motivated by hate and the desire to start what he described as a “race war,” a 22-year-old gunman entered the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015, and killed nine worshippers.
Our nation, shocked by this horrific act of violence, rallied together — laying flowers outside the church, holding prayer vigils across the country and witnessing tributes of love and grief from around the world.
It seemed as if for a moment we could finally speak as a country about our troubled racial history. This was not, after all, the first act of violence towards Emmanuel A.M.E; its founders had been beaten and lashed for daring to organize a black-led church in the early 1800s.
Emmanuel’s first pastor fled from South Carolina after being implicated for planning a slave rebellion. The church bears the scars of our troubled past and a present that still carries unaddressed racism and prejudice.
For a brief moment I held out hope that our country would finally have an honest conversation about race, religion and our nation’s continued racial divide. But that dialogue never came — we mourned briefly and we returned to our daily lives. We were too busy gearing ourselves up for a presidential election that would only further separate us, to see that race still serves as a dividing factor in our country.
Two years after the Charleston shooting, not much has changed. Many will gather on June 17, 2017, to remember the lives of the nine women and men who were martyred that day. Yet the silos we live in — classified by race, gender, politics and religion — have only intensified.
There is little room for honest dialogue, for the exploration of our troubled past and for the ability to dream what the world ought to be like. Instead, our silos have become places where we shout at each other, and like children we stick our fingers in our ears, refusing to hear the voice of the past and the lives of those killed that day beckoning us to live into a better future for our country.
What is the point of remembering the “Emmanuel Nine” in prayer services and vigils if our nation refuses to deal honestly with our racial history and our current divide? Yes, we have come a long way from where our nation has been, but there is a long road ahead of us. The Charleston shooting should serve as the impetus for us to begin deep and honest conversations with those who are different from us.
Racial reconciliation is only achieved when we begin to listen to each other. I am not suggesting the sort of listening where we quickly fall into guilt or awkwardness because we cannot handle each other’s pain. Instead, our deep listening to each other’s stories, perspectives and histories can become the catalyst for building an equitable society where Charleston never happens again.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. adapted from the fellowship of reconciliation the idea of the “beloved community.” He describes the beloved community as the kingdom of love and justice, a place where all are recognized and all are treated as the children of God. The Beloved Community, however, does not take place when we abandon what makes us unique: our race, our gender, our religion, our nationality. It begins when we use that as the launching point towards seeing the humanity of those around us.
Two years have passed from the Charleston shooting and I still hold out hope that the beloved community is not an impossible dream, but something that can be built here and now.
We can begin the hard work of reconciliation, but it can only begin with honest reflection and dialogue where we leave our silos. Here on the Hilltop, we can begin the journey of reconciliation and building a beloved community of love and justice. It simply takes the ability to study with, learn from, befriend, worship with and listen those who are different from us.
Rev. Brandon Harris is the Protestant Chaplain to the Law Center and Main Campus.