What Dylann Roof did in Charleston last week was evil to its core. He attacked black men, women and children. He attacked the Black Church, and in doing so he attacked the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because for many years in America - the Black Church has carried the heart of the Gospel.
I am a white woman. Most of my life, I've attended predominately white churches. Now as a Pastor, I've served predominately white congregations. I love the White Church, but in it alone my faith was incomplete.
It wasn't until I experienced the black church - perhaps the most venerable African American institution - that my faith and understanding of Jesus was made more complete.
Two months ago, I left my congregation in Chicago's whitewashed North Shore suburbs and drove nearly 90 minutes to Riverdale on the Far South Side. We parked in the neighborhood, where people gathered on front porches and leaned under car hoods, and we walked down the block to Shekinah Chapel, an African American Lutheran congregation that was originally organized as a mentoring program for young black men on the Far South Side.
It was 2015, but segregation felt alive in Chicago that morning -- the blackness of the South Side and the whiteness of the North Shore a witness to racial tensions left forever unresolved and justice never served. Shekinah had to advocate for safe drinking water for Riverdale's residents, in an almost bankrupt municipality that served witness to a part of Chicago deserted by investment and infrastructure. Into places of hopelessness and injustice, the Black Church has long filled the void - and Shekinah has done just that.
When Pastor Yeheil Curry first invited me to preach, telling the congregation one December morning that I'd be returning as a preacher for them later that spring, I had to catch my breath. This was a place of fiery revivals, of Amens!, of Gospel stories of changed lives and real political activism. Pastor Curry's wife nearly won a race for alderman that winter. The church was more than a worship service on Sundays, it was a center for community life in a community where death and despair and poverty sought to conquer life and hope.
What could I have to say?
When the Sunday came for me to preach last April, I felt my whiteness viscerally - it seemed to emanate and almost glow out of my pores, making me visible and different. I was no Rachel Dolezal. I was as white as it gets, outfitted in JCrew and blonde highlights. I knew then how an African American family might feel walking into one of my congregations: different, left out, uncomfortable.
And then suddenly I didn't. I was welcomed, embraced, and when we shared the peace I felt included. Accepted. Loved. Comfortable, even.
I walked up behind the altar, noticed a rip in my pants that must have occurred mid-service, and I knew then I had to own it.
"Here I am," I said, pointing out the rip in my pants, and going on to joke about my red-haired husband and son dancing to "You Can't Touch This," the evening before.
Graciously, the congregation laughed. We moved on. Into Acts 2 and Pentecost and Jesus' vision for the Church, and segregation in Chicago, and North Shore and South Side and an elder in the congregation reminded us all of Shekinah's story and I connected it to Pentecost and the Holy Spirit and the ways the Holy Spirit is bringing Spirited Startups in the church today, through Shekinah as a witness to African American Christianity in a historically white, Scandinavian and German denomination.
When it was done I felt both full and empty. Full because I had been loved and Jesus had been present. Empty because it had happened again. Every time I worshipped in African American congregations, I experienced something distinct - different - and something my husband and I discussed each time. Jesus spoke there - God spoke there in the Black Church in a way that changed our faith. Perhaps it is the legacy of slavery and Civil Rights, but in that sanctuary - and at Trinity UCC on the South Side, and in every African American congregation where I've been privileged to worship - the impetus toward justice in the Gospel becomes so much more real. It's felt. It's experienced. Jesus pushes on you, hard, and makes you reconsider everything. There is a real sense of the incredible power of our everlasting God. A Power harnessed for justice and righteousness and mercy -- a power that defeated slavery and segregation and is still at work today to right racial injustice in America.
Somewhere, in his deranged brain filled with white supremacy and KKK and Nazism and anti-semitism and misguided patriarchy, Dylann Roof knew about that power. He knew the Black Church possessed within it an incredible power for righteousness and justice and mercy. He knew that God had given the Black Church its rightful place as leader for righteous change.
Instead of exciting Dylann Roof, this power made him afraid. It twisted within him and, as evil does, the same evil that crucified Jesus on the Cross, the evil in Dylann Roof attempted to kill this Black Christian force for resurrection, new life, and justice. He killed heartlessly, mercilessly, and indiscriminately; his goal to destroy the power of this venerable force for righteous change in the heart of the American South.
As evil does, Dylann failed. What we remember is not his insane rantings or his heart of darkness, but instead we remember that Mother Emanuel has been, is, and will be a continued force for the Gospel of Jesus Christ in America in a way the White Church cannot be. The triumph of Mother Emanuel and the Black Church in general is the triumph of resurrection over death, of perseverance in the face of lynchings, slavery and now a church shooting - a beacon for the truth of the Gospel, that Jesus saves and death will never, ever have the final word.
What I remember most from reading about last Wednesday night is this small sentence Dylann Roof told the police officers who took him into custody the next morning.
"I almost didn't go through with it because they were so nice to me."
He sat with his victims for an hour in Bible Study before he killed them. As Judas Iscariot kissed Jesus before he betrayed him, so Dylann Roof gained intimacy with his victims before pulling out his semiautomatic pistol.
I thought of how nice they'd been to me, at Shekinah, at Trinity, at African American congregations across the Midwest. How Pastor Curry of Shekinah had become one of my dearest friends, closest confidants, and brother-in-Christ. How he - a preacher who could shake the rafters of revivals and stadiums full of thousands - gave up his pulpit one Sunday morning on the South Side to a young white woman who had no business being there at all.
Calling it "his mission," Dylann Roof killed nine brothers and sisters in Christ last Wednesday at Mother Emanuel.
But Dylann Roof in no way completed "his mission," because no death - no evil - no racism - will ever stop the mission of the Black Church in America because the mission of the Black Church in America is the mission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Nowhere in this great land has the vision for justice Jesus spoke about in his first public sermon, quoting the prophet Isaiah, "to proclaim release to the captives ... to let the oppressed go free," been clearer than in the hallowed halls of the Black Church: in the years of Civil War, in the marches for Civil Rights, in the protests in 2015 for Black Lives that matter, in the face of police brutality or unjust imprisonment.
Dylann Roof was right that Mother Emanuel is a symbol of this great witness. He was wrong to think he could do anything to diminish that witness, for as Joseph told his scheming brothers, "what you intended for evil, God intended for good."
In the hallowed halls of Mother Emanuel this morning, let freedom ring. Let Jesus speak. And let the lives of those nine rise again: a witness not for the evil Roof intended but the righteousness, kindness and mercy for which they gathered last Wednesday night.
May we all - white and black American Christians - gather together again this Sunday and forevermore in their honor, and in honor of all the martyrs who died so that the Gospel might live.