The evening began like any other Wednesday Bible study. Beloved parishioners and their pastor gathered to read scripture and pray together in church. Now they are dead. Nine black people, nine precious creations of God, nine cherished souls who were “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) by their Creator — six black women and three black men — are dead. Nothing and no one can bring them back. These beloved ones attended Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Its history, like the lives of those who belonged to this beloved community, is a noble one.
From its inception this beloved community of God has fought for the civil rights of black people. They advocated alongside other ambassadors of reconciliation who had been enslaved, violated, abused, harassed, brutalized, lied to, discriminated against, dishonored, and treated as insignificant. They refused to see themselves through the lens of those who did not value their life. They did not wait for others to tell them that their lives mattered. They did not seek the permission of others to legitimate their existence because they knew that their lives mattered to God. And so, when those filled with hate burned down their church, members rebuilt it in 1834 during a time “when all-black churches were outlawed” (“Emanuel A.M.E. Church” Nps.gov).
Undeterred, “the congregation subsequently met in secret until 1865 when it was formally reorganized, and the name Emanuel was adopted” (ibid.). They were, and are, a proud people of fortitude and resiliency. The fight against racial and socio-economic injustice runs through the veins of Emanuel AME Church’s history. Many may have “despised” members of this community and considered them “weak”; many may not have considered them “wise by human standards” (1 Corinthians 1: 26 NRSV). They may not all have occupied seats of state-sanctioned power, “[b]ut God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no onemight boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NRSV). As scripture emphasizes, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25 NRSV). Members of Emanuel AME Church were and are ambassadors of reconciliation and God’s light to the world.
“Advocate for the people”
The Reverend Honorable Clementa C. Pinckney, 41, husband to Jennifer, father of Eliana and Malana, and pastor of Emanuel AME Church, embraced his denomination’s and church’s legacy of resistance and advocacy against white supremacy and racial injustice. On June 17, 2015, Rev. Pinckney died at the hands of a young white adult male suspect, Dylann Storm Roof. Rev. Pinckney valued the humanity of those whom he encountered. In support of this view, “Rev. Joseph Darby, the presiding elder at Beaufort AME Church described him as ‘an advocate for the people’” (Matthew Weaver, The Guardian, June 18, 2015). In April 2015, Rev. Pinckney led a prayer vigil in response to the tragic moment when a policeman, Michael Slager, shot an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, several times in the back while Scott was running away from him for his life.
Alongside other activists, religious leaders, and followers of Jesus, Rev. Pinckney campaigned for policemen to wear body cameras while conducting their duties. Pinckney noted that “[b]ody cameras help to record what happens. It may not be the golden ticket, the golden egg, the end-all-fix-all, but it helps to paint a picture of what happens during a police stop” (Matthew Weaver, The Guardian, June 18, 2015). Rev. Joseph Darby “told MSNBC: ‘Pinckney was a very caring and competent pastor, and he was a very brave man. Brave men sometimes die difficult deaths”’ (ibid.). Todd Rutherford, “the South Carolina state house minority leader . . . has told the Associated Press that [Rev.] Pinckney “never had anything bad to say about anybody, even when I thought he should. He was always out doing work either for his parishioners or his constituents. He touched everybody” (Claire Phipps et al., The Guardian, June 18, 2015).
Beloved Vessels of Love
On June 17, 2015, nine members of Emanuel AME church died at the hands of suspect, Dylann Storm Roof. As ambassadors of reconciliation, these nine beloved souls nurtured relationships with family, with friends, and with those who attended their church. They served the wider community faithfully and with excellence. They shared the love of Jesus with others through their words and actions. They include:
Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton who was a part time pastor, speech language pathologist, and high school track coach. She was a devoted mother to her beloved sons, Caleb and Chris. Her son, Chris Singleton, praised his mother for being “a better mother than [he] could have ever asked for.” He recalls how he used to joke with her that she “went to church too much” (csingleton_2, Twitter.com, June 18, 2015). His mother “would laugh it off and say, ‘Boy you can never have too much of the Lord”’ (ibid.).
The beloved, “Ethel Lee Lance, 70, [was] a retired Gilliard Center employee who worked recently as a church [custodian]” (Andrew Knapp, Post and Courier, June 18, 2015). Her grandson, Jon Quil Lance lamented, “I’m lost, I’m lost . . . Granny was the heart of the family. She’s a Christian, hardworking; I could call my granny for anything. I don’t have anyone else like that” (Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier, June 18 2015).
“Susie Jackson, 87, Lance’s cousin . . . was a longtime church member” (Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier, June 18, 2015). She sang in the choir and was on the church’s usher board, according to ABC 5 in Cleveland. Her family lives in Cleveland and Ms. Jackson had just visited the family. Her son, Tim Jackson, said she was a very loving, giving person with a great smile” (Justin Carissimo, The Independent, June 18, 2015).
During his short and promising life, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders was a budding entrepreneur and college graduate. As one friend Tory Shaw stresses, Sanders “brimmed with ambition” (James Queally, LA Times, June 18, 2015). He was a poet and loved music. A lover of people, Sanders “presented a warm and helpful spirit as he interacted with his colleagues” (Justin Carissimo, The Independent, June 18, 2015). Shaw remembers that Sanders “had a lot of ambition, a lot of drive.” Shaw said. “You tell him he can’t walk on water and he’d try” (James Queally, LA Times, June 18, 2015).
Cynthia Hurd, 54, “was the regional branch manager for the St. Andrews Charleston County Public Library system” and a devoted follower of Jesus (Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier, June 18 2015). She “was a tireless servant of the community who spent her life helping residents, making sure they had every opportunity for an education and personal growth” (Justin Carissimo, The Independent, June 18, 2015).
“Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49 . . . retired in 2005 as Charleston County director of the Community Development Block Grant Program (Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier, June 18 2015).
Myra Thompson, 59, was the wife of the Rev. Anthony Thompson of Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church (James Queally, LA Times, June 18, 2015).
The granddaughter of Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., 74, Ava Simmons, remembered that Rev. Simmons “was a member of the Emanuel AME ministerial staff and regularly attended Wednesday night Bible study” (Katie Shepherd, LA Times, June 18, 2015). Ava Simmons lamented, “We love him and we miss him” (ibid.).
Honoring the faithful
When I look at the precious faces of these beloved ones, when I ponder the testimonies surrounding the love they shared with others, I thank God for their life, and I am reminded of so many cherished black elders and young people who have shaped my faith. I see so many elders and young people from the black community who guided me to a loving relationship with Jesus and deepened my experience of prayer. And I see so many faces of those whom I sat next to in Bible studies on a Wednesday evening or Sunday morning as we poured over God’s word together and breathed the same air. I see so many family members in the faces of those who were slain in a church and my heart cannot stop crying.
God cherished the nine beloved ones who died at the hands of a gunman on June 17, 2015. Their lives were not this gunman’s to take. God handed them to us as a gift to the human family. God valued their presence on this earth and they embraced their worth in the creator of love. God delighted in them and in return they delighted in him. They were precious in his sight and he adored them. And nothing and no one can separate them “from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39). Thank you beloved ones for living a faithful life. I cling onto Jesus because of your lived testimony of faith. Rest in peace beloved ones. Rest in peace.
Dr. Claudia May is a specialist in African American and Caribbean literature and popular culture, a spiritual writer, poet, and a spiritual director (see http://www.claudiamay.org/ ). She is a visiting scholar in the Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a recipient of the Pacific School of Religion President’s award. She is a passionate follower of Jesus, a woman of prayer, and a lover of biblical stories and wisdom. You can follow her on twitter @