Bishop T. Larry Kirkland, Chair, Commission on Publications
The Reverend Dr. Johnny Barbour, Jr., Publisher
The Reverend Dr. Calvin H. Sydnor III, the 20th Editor, The Christian Recorder
The Christian Recorder News Break – One Year Later...Mother Emanuel…
*The Rev. Jarrett Washington
The Reverend Dr. Clementa Pinckney
The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Licentiate Myra Thompson
Ethel Lee Lance
The Rev. Daniel L. Simmons
The Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor
-- God has prepared a city for them.
Today is that day I will never forget. So much has changed in my life, and undoubtedly the lives of the family members, friends, and congregants of those affected by the horrific tragedy at Mother Emanuel here in Charleston, South Carolina. Today, we mourn the lives of 9 innocent Bible study attendees who, by no fault of their own, are gone too soon. I've never had the inclination or even the desire to articulate my inner thoughts or feelings concerning June 17, 2015; however, as we stand today to commemorate the lives of the Reverend Senator Clementa C. Pinckney, the Reverend Dr. Daniel "Super" Simmons, the Reverend Depayne Middleton Doctor, the Reverend Sharonda Coleman Singleton, Licentiate Myra Thompson, Mrs. Cynthia Hurd, Mrs. Suzie Jackson, Ms. Ethel Lance, and Mr. Tywanza Sanders I can't help but go back to that day and reflect on where God has brought us.
That night June 17, 2015 was a typical Wednesday for me. I was pastoring Saint James AME Church of Johns Island, and I spent much of the day in preparation for meetings and ultimately the evening bible study. My Presiding Elder, Dr. Goff (yes, I served on the same district as Mother Emanuel), had earlier encouraged the pastors of the district to read and study the book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church by Thomas Rainer. On this particular night, Saint James was studying the chapter that dealt with the "Past Hero." Much of the discussion in Bible study centered on Hebrews 11. Yes, we know this to be the "faith" chapter of Hebrews where it is written, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1). Yet, most of our discussion focused on verse 13 and following, where it written, 13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. (In retrospect, I have to ask myself and answer affirmatively, did I really teach a Bible study on June 15, 2015 with the discussion centered on dying in faith…? Wow, God.)
At the conclusion of Bible study I had more work to do and so I decided to stop at the local Starbucks in between my home and the church. While in Starbucks I worked hard to complete a project amongst surfing the web and making updates to my social media pages. As time progressed I received a phone call from my wife, Deronda, saying that Rapheal James (a local anchor and friend) frantically wanted to know where I was. I told my wife that I was at Starbucks, and she, being on the other line with Raphael, said I needed to come home. I little vexed, I packed up my stuff and headed home. While in route to my home, I started seeing updates on my twitter feed that there had been a shooting near Mother Emanuel and to avoid that area of the city. I thought nothing of it, and continued home.
As I pulled in my driveway, and the garage door began to lift, my wife runs outside with tears in her eyes and says to me, "There's been a shooting at Mother Emanuel and people are saying that some people have died." Immediately, I went into a panic. I thought, wasn't I just there on Sunday? Not a church....We turned on the news and you could see the reporters reporting from near the church but still not saying exactly what happened. I phoned my little sister, Valencia Wicker, who at the time was a reporter here in Charleston, and she answers her phone only to say to me, "she can't talk right now." As soon as I disconnected from her, I received an email from my district telling me to go to the Embassy Suites near Mother Emanuel. One of my colleagues in ministry and brothers in the faith, Clinton McPherson, came by my house and picked me up. We then headed to another brother's home, William Miller, and he got in the car. As we drove into downtown Charleston it was almost as if the entire city was shut down. We parked on King Street in front of Virginia's on King. We saw no one. We walked up the back alley to the Embassy Suites and there at the door we were greeted by FBI agents who said to us, "There is a bomb threat on this building, get in, or go out."
As we walk into the hotel, we see some familiar faces, no one really wanting to make eye contact, just staring as if they had heard the worst. We enter into a ballroom filled with members of Mother Emanuel. There were chaplains. There was a large police presence. There were a handful of pastors. And then us. The air was thick. There was an eerie feeling over the entire place as if death was present. There was no small talk, simply people sitting; wanting to know what was really going on. Coffee pots stayed full; water stations were continuously being replenished, yet no one was thirsty, everyone just wanted answers.
I so vividly remember the police officers and chaplains quietly tapping the shoulders of the loved ones of the deceased and posing various questions to them. By this time, no one knew who was dead, but you could almost feel the level of duress because some family members were repeatedly calling their loved ones and not getting an answer. I even recall, one officer asking a family member, "Do you remember what your loved one had on when they left the house today?" Only for the family to respond, "I'm not sure." That's when I knew something was terribly wrong.
Some hours into the night, Chief Mullens, the Chief of Police, Mayor Riley, and their entourage enter the room. Everyone gets really quiet. The Chief of Police explains, "There was shooting during the Bible study, eight people are dead, one is at the hospital." It was at that very moment, that the woman standing next to me screams the loudest scream I've ever heard, and she collapses into the arms of the man standing next to her. On the floor, yes sitting on the floor, is a man who immediately punches the wall (certainly there was a hole) and cries until his shirt is covered in his own tears. Presiding Elder Goff begins to speak, and asks everyone in the room to sing "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less." As the people attempted to sing, you could see pain, stress, anger, and every other emotion possible to man/woman in that room. My eyes gravitated to Reverend Pinckney's girls who were sitting with Mrs. Pinckney and Reverend Singleton's children and I began to weep because I knew, somehow, that they had seen their parents alive for the last time earlier that day.
In the coming days, things changed in our city and in our church. I remember the vigils, the meetings, and the overwhelming media presence. What became difficult, also translated to an honor as my company, Legacy Graphics was contracted to produce the funeral programs for the deceased. During the day, I would collect the pictures and memories from the families and funeral homes, lock myself in my office, cry, work, cry all over again, and come out with a finished product. I learned so much about these martyrs of the faith, some things I hadn't known before, in those days of work.
For me, days like today are difficult to say the least. For me, ministry has always been meeting people on a personal level. In my life, to know someone, is to really know someone. Today I celebrate the life of the Reverend Senator Clementa C. Pinckney. He and I had what I consider a good "AME" relationship. He was the senior pastor of my district, yet, he was young, vibrant, and the quintessential historian. I was that young preacher/pastor that he continuously tried to mold and shape, even if I wasn't willing to be molded or shaped. In our personal conversations and even text messages (which I still have) he would ask me questions like, "did I have to wear that tie?" or "make sure you have on your collar..." as if to say, I wouldn't. To say we butted heads on a lot of things is an understatement, but the truth is that even when it didn't look like it, he was one of my biggest supporters. He opened his pulpit and heart to me many times, I could phone him for advice and he would always give it to me straight and for that I am eternally grateful.
Just the other day a colleague asked me what will I remember the most about the Reverend Dr. Daniel "Super" Simmons? When I first started preaching, I recall Dr. Simmons inviting me to his church in Awendaw. Two days before I was set to preach, he phones me, and he tells me (yes, tells me) what my subject and scripture text must be. My immediate "flesh" response was, if you are telling me all of this, maybe you should preach. But I followed his directions. Some years later, Dr. Simmons confided in me that he knew I was going to be somebody because I knew how to follow directions. While he served as a pastor on my district we had an awesome, yet very private friendship. He would tell me, "Washington, I don't want people to know we are friends because young preachers never get support from we old preachers when folk know we are friends." His phone conversations or Waffle House talks were the best. I even remember him telling the congregation he was retiring from that I was to be the next pastor. Well that didn't happen, but wow! Finally, I recall him preaching my pastoral appreciation in 2014. (As a matter of fact the most recent pictures of him online and those used to identify him are from Saint James). He spoke such words of wisdom from the subject, "Kamikaze!" You just had to be there to understand.
Honestly, I didn't really know the Reverend Depayne Middleton Doctor on a personal level. I knew her family quite well, but our paths never crossed. In creating her funeral program, I had an opportunity to know of her overwhelming love for God and for God's people. She lived an amazing life and had an even more amazing testimony.
And then there was Reverend Sharonda Coleman Singleton. Sharonda (no disrespect) and I were most times "hot" but sometimes "cold." To know her was to love her. She didn't take any stuff and you were not going to make her do anything she didn't want to do. Sharonda was one of the most promising candidates in my Board of Examiners Class. Some time ago, I was an instructor for the Class on Admissions and she was a great student. Sharonda came and went as she wanted. She had the kind of favor that she could come and go to annual conference as she pleased without repercussion. That's real favor! She was dedicated to her children. She went above and beyond to never miss anything her children were a part of. Every time you spoke with her she had something to say about what was going on in her children's life. She was an asset to even my ministry, as I called upon her quite often to preach. Most of all, she was an amazing speech therapist. Our godson had just started working with her a few weeks before she was killed. Even at the age of 2, he had fond memories of such a sweet spirit.
Licentiate Myra Thompson became close by association. A woman I considered to be a mother in ministry, the late Reverend Donna Green and Myra Thompson were very close. Reverend Green would oftentimes talk about her friend Myra. When my wife and I got married, it was Myra who told me that because she was a former teacher of my wife, she was to be my teacher too! I recall having a conversation with Myra during the beginning of June. She said to me, "Reverend Jarrett I want you to know that I am going before the conference this year and I am going to be one of the best looking preachers on that day!" I responded, "Well go 'head!" We laughed and little did we know what would happen less than two weeks later.
Mrs. Cynthia Hurd, Mrs. Suzie Jackson, and Mr. Tywanza Sanders I remember each from my constant visits to Mother Emanuel but never had a chance to know them personally. Each of them has a remarkable story and in this past year I have been so very inspired by the people they were.
Ms. Ethel Lance was the person to know in Mother Emanuel. Some years ago, my wife and I decided to take our engagement photos as Mother Emanuel. Some weeks before the photo session, the church secretary gave me Sister Lance's telephone number to coordinate our schedules for the shoot. I recall phoning Sister Lance one evening only for her to tell me, "I'm always here so just ring the bell." How funny it was that the very day we showed up to take pictures, Ms. Lance decided not to be there, but rather sent someone in her place. For years, she and I had a running joke, where I would say to her, "You ain't always here!"
The first week in June, the district had a budget assessment due and we were to make that report at Mother Emanuel. After the reports were made, everyone was hurrying out of the basement level of the church. Sister Lance was sitting at the back table waiting to lock up and she motions for me to come over. She says to me, "Washington, you know I think we are family!" I listen intently and she starts naming names of people who I am related to that she is related to also. By the end of the conversation I say to her, "I don't know most of the people you speak of, but you can be my cousin." As the conversation ends, she watches me walk to the door, and she says to me, "Bye Cousin." Those were the last words I ever heard from her.
Much has changed since that horrific night one year ago today. I am no longer pastoring Saint James AME Church on the same district as Mother Emanuel, but I am serving a congregation in Hemingway, Hopewell AME Church. My wife and I are anxiously awaiting our new addition, Baby Braylen. The confederate flag has come down. Gun laws are being reviewed. Yet and still, these families, the congregation, and the world is still mourning the loss of our beloved Emanuel 9.
Today, if you do anything, show somebody you love them. Be extraordinarily nice to your brothers and your sisters. Be strengthened and renewed with greater faith in God. For as the Hebrew writer so eloquently articulated, God has already prepared a city for them. Live your life as if you will meet them in that city.
*The Rev. Jarrett Washington is the pastor of Hopewell African Methodist Episcopal Church in Hemingway, South Carolina
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