Ben reports from ‘Mother Emanuel’ in Charleston on June 21, 2015

We were all in the same church this Sunday morning

CHARLESTON, SC, June 21–Like a lot of people around the nation, I simply felt the need to be here on this Sunday with the good people of “Mother Emanuel”—The African Methodist Episcopalian Church.  Not everyone who was so moved could actually manage it, though one could feel the presence of millions of kindred spirits in the humidity and holiness of this aggrieved community.

I spoke about this with my friend and teacher, Lou Dunst—the renowned San Diego Holocaust survivor and healer.   Lou personally witnessed, a thousand times over, the kind of sudden, inexplicable, gory violence that occurred last week at Mother Emanuel.  He told me, “Tell them that we Jews and especially we Survivors know what they are feeling and that we send our blessings.”

Very few people can say that without patronizing the ghastly crime and unthinkable bestiality that took place here—even as God-fearing folks were simply studying scripture.

Reaching out to the Church community, I first made contact with an energetic, dauntless woman named Althea—she picked up the phone in her car when I called the Church’s main line on Friday.  A secretary of the Church, beleaguered and heartbroken, she explained that calls were being forwarded to her mobile as she drove all over the community, gathering and delivering supplies, water, documents, books, mourners, investigators, and people simply in need of direction and consolation.

Althea gave me her full attention.  I explained my desire to be present on Sunday.  “Yes, you would be welcome, that is so kind.  We need everybody’s prayers.  That sick boy sat there for an hour.  He asked, who was the preacher?  Reverend asked him to sit right next to him.  The boy got up and shot Reverend first.  We don’t know what to even say.  No, come on down.  We’re all the children of the Lord.”

The name of PASTOR CLEMENTA PINCKNEY reads, like a haunted graphic, on the church outside announcement board, above a growing bed of flowers and tributes and psalms.

I met Raymond, an ebullient, kind-hearted server at the Bonefish Grill, who was at the church this morning.  Like the hundreds of white people assembled, including entire families, prayer groups, and servicemen and women, he sweated outside in the mounting heatwave. He stood with his manager, Curt, a doe-eyed black man who smiled through his anguish.

The two men had delivered over 150 gallons of cold water to the Church in these blistering days after the attack.  Raymond said: “This kind of thing is not Charleston.  Charleston is quirkiness.  Charleston is love.”  Curt nodded in agreement and the two men raised their hands together as the gospel singers from inside the sanctuary came through on the public speaker in another rhapsodic wave of heavenly hope.

Carlos, a shuttle driver of Latin heritage, raised his hands in a sign of affinity.  “Charleston is growing,” he said to me.  “Look at what Boeing is doing down here.  Look at our Silicon Harbor.  No one maniac can stop us.”

The voice of Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff, a New York pastor who is temporarily leading Emanuel AME, came booming through the loudspeaker.  Speaking of the “Mother Emanuel Nine,” he intoned:  “There they were, studying Your word. But the Devil came in and took control.”  He assuaged the anguish of the multitude with melodic invocations of the afterlife guaranteed for believers in Christ.

Old white volunteers walked around, passing cold water bottles to the thirsty.  A troupe of lithe young men and women, all colors, donning tee-shirts that declared FREE HUGS, collected arms and shoulders and turned strangers to each other.

I closed my eyes in the heavy warm air and tried to form some prayerful words.  I have no recollection of what they were.  My eyes opened and saw a gloriously beautiful child smiling up at me.  I have no idea what color she was.