Charleston and the Grief of Prophets

Charleston and the Grief of Prophets July 1, 2015

11210467_10153032007461313_6435108675782588781_nFive of us from the Transform Network leadership team were at the Sojourners Summit when we heard about the killing of 9 people at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. I happened to run into two people that next Wednesday morning in the lobby of the Summit that I had only met online and via phone, Lindsay Andreolli-Comstock from the Beatitudes Society and Jacqui Lewis from Middle Collegiate Church. We said our hellos and as they headed off to what looked to be a meeting, I was invited to join. Steve Knight, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, and Micky Scott Bey Jones were with me there as well, and we decided to check out the meeting.

We sat down just before noon and realized that this meeting was about creating some kind of organized response to the killings in Charleston. At noon there was an invitation to pray with others around the nation and so we joined hands letting our tears and our prayers flow. AME pastor Melinda Weekes led us in a powerful prayer that I hardly have words to describe.

The prayers and tears gave way to organizing. We went around the table sharing the resources, contacts, and capacity we each had to lend to the effort. Jacqui asked for a show of hands of people willing to go to Charleston. My hand flew into the air though my mind was just barely beginning to slug through all that would take logistically. Sharon Groves spoke beautifully to the need to listen to what the community and organizers in Charleston and the kind of support they were calling for.

Fast forward through next few hours, and five of us we were on the road in a rental SUV. The phone calls, texts, and emails were flying as our thinking evolved and we communicated with the Auburn team and the Transform team who were organizing the online tools. We knew that we wanted an online tool where people could report back on and collectivize their individual efforts to grieve and to make sense of the tragedy. We wanted a place online where the immense love and support we knew was out there could be seen in chorus. We decided upon doing a Twitter “storm,” a concise time where people tweet with a particular hashtag which leads to greater online exposure. Jacqui had a moment of brilliance (of which there are many!) and blurted out “prophetic grief!” and we all knew this was the right hashtag for the Twitter storm.

Isaac at Groundwell suggested changing the word “storm” to “pray-in,” and someone quoted what Dr. King famously said, “The most segregated hour in America is still 11 o’clock on Sunday morning” – we decided to hold the pray-in on 11am ET on Sunday.

10659166_10153011643796313_8206632991510252177_nOver 1,000 people participated, tweeting out more than 4,600 tweets, making #PropheticGrief the number two trending hashtag on Twitter, second only to hashtag #FathersDay.

Steve Knight, who helped organize the #PropheticGrief pray-in on Twitter and Facebook, writes this:

Faith communities from across the country that were remembering the 9 martyrs of Emanuel AME, joined their prayers and voices with everyone, posting pictures of their prayer altars with candles lit and photos of the shooting victims being remembered and honored. The hashtag became a place that revealed what was happening around the country, as the nation mourned and people of faith lamented the sins of white supremacy and racism.

But another thing was also revealed – the many churches that were NOT talking about race that Sunday morning, that were remaining silent and NOT addressing the open wound in our national psyche. More than one person joined the hashtag #PropheticGrief to lament this silence: @MattSaler in Grand Rapids, Michigan, tweeted, “Ashamed today. The church I’ve considered home for years has been failing to rise to the challenge of #BlackLivesMatter. Did again today.”

In response to that tweet, @G_abrielaGaray in Chicago responded, “Just walked out of my church service because of this. I’m in tears.” She used the hashtag #PropheticGrief to join her lament with the thousand others. A half an hour later, she tweeted this, “The #PropheticGrief community is currently my only community. Thank you God for giving me people to grief (sic) with; giving me hope.”

We had created and held a space online – with a hashtag – not only for faith communities to share their beautiful expressions of lament, but for those people, like Gabriela, who were lamenting outside of community to find community – and encouragement to carry on.

As for our experience in Charleston, I want to send folks to read Jacqui Lewis’s account of our time there. She writes really beautifully about our mission to deliver 5,000 prayers collected on Groundswell from all over the country.

The piece that I can contribute to that story of our time down there was about meeting with local activists and bearing witness to their pain and their analysis of the local organizing and what kind of support is needed. In the presence of tourists, throngs of reporters, and other out-of-towners, we were acutely aware of our presence as outsiders, and time and again articulated a desire to connect locally and take their lead on crafting our response.

We were blessed with the Spirit when we were laying down our flowers in front of the church. Jordan Davis’s mom, Lucia McBath, appeared, and Lindsey and Jacqui went to her instantly and held her. This hug seeded a joining of the rest of us along with women we didn’t know in a pack of wailing women swaying together in lament and in raw, exposed prophetic grief. Lucia kept saying over and over through sobs, “This has to stop! When will it stop?” The prayers were deep, the Spirit moved with us, and when we looked up, hundreds of people had gathered. Jacqui stepped up in this moment and invited us all to sing. The singing was powerful and people grabbed their neighbors’ hands and swayed and sang. Hundreds of us mourned and sang and as Jacqui led us in chanting “Black Lives Matter,” we were joined by a young activist, identifiable by his T-shirt and his leading everyone in the peoples’ mic – a call and response method of speaking without amplification, popularized but the Occupy movement.

His voice was powerful and clear, and we were happy to meet him. He told us about liberation school, a training happening at that very moment at a community center nearby. We went there and listened to a powerful sister speak about the legacy of white supremacy still to this day upheld in Charleston, SC.

10390309_10153015341531313_1590109376203485061_nThat night Lindsay and I went to a protest at the base of the John C. Calhoun Monument, the 8th vice president of the U.S. whose legacy is his fierce defense of slavery. The activists in Charleston want this and other monuments of confederate white supremacy removed. They actually want the rest of the country to participate in a boycott of all tourism to Charleston until these celebrated symbols of slavery are removed and systemic white supremacy in Charleston is checked and healed.  We made an internet meme attempting to connect the dots between supremacy of the past, how it is perpetuated by uplifting confederate culture and the violence of white supremacy in action today.

If anyone has any good ideas on how to replace the tourism income with sustainable incoming earning for working families in Charleston, I will get behind this boycott 100%. We need some Neighbor Economics folks to help figure out what that could look like!

In the meantime pray for Charleston, support these activists and challenge white supremacy wherever you are.

Check out for tangible steps that can be taken to resist white supremacy in your community. They are doing some good work standing in support for the black churches set afire across the south – more on this soon.

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