Charleston Church Shooting: The Danger of “All Are Welcome”

Charleston Church Shooting: The Danger of “All Are Welcome” June 18, 2015

A screenshot, taken from Dylan Roof's Facebook page
A screenshot, taken from Dylan Roof’s Facebook page. Note the patches on his jacket, which represent both South African apartheid and white-rule Rhodesia. 

Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old white male, entered Emanuel AME Church Wednesday (one of the city’s oldest historically black churches) and joined the congregants for a prayer meeting for about an hour. He then opened fire and killed nine in attendance, including a state senator. He is now in custody and the shooting is being ruled a hate crime.

Though he was not likely known by those in the church at the time, it has been reported that he was a known abuser of prescription drugs and had some history of run-ins with local law enforcement. In a picture of Roof shown here, his jacket bears two patches, including one for South African apartheid, and another for white-rule Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

So how is it that a likely white supremacist with two arrests this year alone and a history of drug abuse is able to walk into an otherwise all-black prayer meeting with a gun?

First, it should be noted that, for anyone who questions that systems of dominance in our culture still are exacting violence on non-white peoples, simply for who they are – and if they don’t find enough evidence in the scads of white-on-black police shootings of late – certainly this is proof positive that our social fabric is still utterly, perhaps hopelessly, torn. Hate is real, and in the hands of the dominant powers, it leads to violence, denial of equality and even death. And while we tend to speak of the United States as a nation based on freedom, none of us is truly free until all are free. We are bound by the spilling of the blood of our kindred spirits. For that, we mourn.

We speak often in our faith communities of radical openness and welcome, and many churches even post ALL ARE WELCOME on their signs. I look at such words with hesitation, if not deep suspicion, as I believe all communities have “others” that they struggle to include, be they people with different ideologies, different skin color, orientation or other differences. For our previous church, we struggled to welcome those who had been previously convicted of sex offenses with minors, both because we had children, but more politically because we worried that we might lose other families with children. Living into our radical welcome that time took painful, gut-wrenching work. In Portland, as we are a downtown church, the greatest challenge is including those from the street, many of whom are mentally ill and/or intoxicated.

Finding boundaries of safety that also allow some degree of inclusion is hard, sometimes scary work. I’ve had to get up and intervene as a man who likely had schizophrenia advanced on Amy as the preached from the pulpit. I had another friend who was living on the street arrested during church due to his aggressive outbursts. But certainly none of these approximates the tragedy the community of Emanuel AME is contending with today. the grief and loss simply are beyond measure.

So again, how do we live into a call of radical, vulnerable welcome while protecting those we love? I struggle to look to Jesus for an example, especially given that he and most of his early followers were executed. I honestly want to believe I mean that when I say “you are welcome,” but at what possible cost? Some churches employ armed guards, metal detectors or other safeguards, but at some point, the unspoken message rings louder than the words of hospitality.

Today, I don’t ask this question as a lead-up to any thoughtful conclusion. I. like so many others, am at a loss. I grieve for and with my sisters and Brothers in Charleston, while also fearing for those closer to me I’m committed to protecting. I want to say “all are welcome,” but sometimes, I’m not so sure I mean it.

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