My wife and I attended An Evening of Prayer Tuesday at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Pawleys Island. The special event was an ecumenical vigil for the victims of the Charleston massacre on June 17 at Emanuel AME Church at the hands of a moral idiot.
For some reason, the vigil brought to mind the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, one of the most famous openings in all of literature: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — worst in this case because we who gathered there knew we were about to relive the shock and pain of the slaughter, and best because nobody ever went to Heaven with a more joyous sendoff than the evening’s honorees received from the biracial gathering of nearly 150.
I haven’t heard religious music that good, that moving, since, well, since the last time I attended a black church service. Mt. Zion’s 20-member choir, accompanied by a pianist, a drummer, and a tambourine man was so soulful that I often made notes through misty eyes, and it was so stirring that those in attendance (including moi) could not sit still, but sprang to their feet often to sway and clap and sing along.
Indeed it was joyful. It was contagious. It was wonderful.
Woven throughout the hour-long service was intermittent sermonizing that ranged from quiet and reflective to loud and impassioned and back again, the preacher’s words punctuated by affirmative sounds emanating from an attentive congregation, many of whom fanned themselves as they uttered: Yea! Uh-huh! All right! Yes! Amen!
At times the words, searching and somber, seemed to waft through the rafters of the small, lovely church like music probing that particularly thorny question about senseless loss, Why, and finding – again, as always – its answer in hope and faith.
And, of course, implicit in all such grieving was the feeling, at times all but palpable, expressed about 400 years ago in a devotion titled Meditation 17 by English poet and Anglican priest John Donne: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Then came Stray Thought No. 2 of the evening: Yogi Berra was right. This was déjà vu all over again. Mother Emanuel, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech, D.C. Sniper, Colorado movie theater, and on and on it goes. Or comes, and comes again. And again.
God help us!
I mustn’t close without naming the other churches involved in this prayer vigil: besides Mt. Zion were Gordon Chapel AME of Murrells Inlet, Bethel AME of Georgetown, St. Mary’s AME, St. John’s AME, Providence Missionary Baptist, and Holy Cross Faith Memorial, all of Pawleys Island.
Nor can I close without naming the murder victims, those unsuspecting souls who got dressed for a Bible-study meeting that Wednesday afternoon never dreaming that they were also dressing for a trip to the morgue. Besides, so fleeting is tragic news anymore that we might not hear their names again until the roll is called up yonder:
- Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (age 54), Bible-study member, manager, Charleston County Public Library system;
- Susie Jackson (87), member, Bible study and church choir;
- Tywanza Sanders (26), member, Bible study, nephew of Susie Jackson;
- Ethel Lee Lance (70), church sexton;
- Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49), a Bible-study teacher, administrator at Southern Wesleyan University;
- Clementa C. Pinckney (41), Emanuel AME pastor and South Carolina state senator;
- Daniel Simmons (74), a pastor who also served at Greater Zion AME Church in Awendaw;
- Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45), a pastor, also a speech therapist and track coach at Goose Creek High School; and
- Myra Thompson (59), a Bible-study teacher.
And let us never forget that all were killed by multiple gunshot wounds from close range by a stranger who came in off the street from another town and was welcomed to their meeting, and who sat in their midst for an hour before drawing a gun and opening fire.
Rest in peace, brothers and sisters.