Charleston strong: from tragedy to unity

CHARLESTON, South Carolina – Last week the small southern city of Charleston, South Carolina was rocked to its foundation as news spread of a mass murder inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, also called, “Mother Emanuel.” Wednesday night, after services ended, a small number of people remained for an 8 p.m. Bible Study. A stranger entered the old church, and he was invited to join them. One hour later, that stranger opened fire, killing 9 of the 12 people in the Church.

[Photo Credit: Cal Sr from Newport, NC]

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church [Photo Credit: Cal Sr from Newport, NC]

While police worked to locate and arrest suspect Dylann Roof, the city of Charleston was left to deal with the aftermath. According to witnesses and a later confession, the suspect reportedly made his racially-motivated mission very clear. He wanted to start a race war. As news spread across the nation, there was a collective pause, while the country came to grips with this act of home-grown terrorism. What would happen next?

Solitary Pagan Tyanna lives in South Carolina. She said, “When I heard what happened I was at a loss for words. I could not believe what had happened. I thought to myself, ‘With all of the people out there in other countries that hate and want to kill us, we have to worry about people like this at home too.'”

Tyanna grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME). She had been to Mother Emanuel many times. She recalled, “That church has been home to many quarterly conferences and is full of history. I went there myself as a child and climbed the narrow steps to the balcony to hide from the adults with my friends.” She and her family knew several of the victims. She said, “I can’t believe that they are gone … It is hard to know you won’t see that person again. But we are all praying, and we know they are not in pain anymore.”

Kelly Scott, chairwoman of the Charleston Area Lowcountry Council of Alternative Spiritual Traditions, remarked that she is “struggling to understand the whole tragedy on a personal spiritual level.” Scott explained, “I can’t begin to wrap my mind around the fact that this senseless act of violence happened on sacred ground. It does not matter that my spiritual path is different from those at Mother Emanuel … what matters is the sacredness of where they were when this occurred. The men and women opened their house of worship to a stranger, what we should all strive to do, to share and learn in comfort without judgment, and became victims of a deep-seeded [sic] hatred…”

Charleston is called “The Holy City” because of the number of churches or church steeples visible in its downtown area. Additionally, the history of many of those buildings is remarkable. Mother Emanuel is the oldest AME church in the South and reportedly “houses the oldest black congregation” south of Baltimore. Similarly, Charleston is home to the oldest Jewish Synagogue and the oldest Unitarian Universalist Church in the South.

[Photo Credit: H. Greene] Angel Oak

[Photo Credit: H. Greene] Angel Oak

Charleston breathes history. It cannot be escaped. The stones in the streets hold the secrets of generations. The ivy, which creeps up the historic buildings, have stories to tell. In a similar way to old southern port cities of New Orleans or Savannah, ancestors speak in the wind, tickling the Spanish moss that hangs from the live oaks. If you listen, the history of the land and all of its people can be heard – both the horrors and the joys. Within these grounds is the famous Angel Oak, one of the oldest trees on the East Coast. It has stood witness to all of this history for over 500 years. Like the city’s modern day residents, the Oak is now adding another chapter to Charleston’s story.

As the shock wore off and people began to react, the city surprised the nation. South Carolina resident Holli Emore, director of Cherry Hill Seminary, said, “The people of Charleston – really all of South Carolina – did the opposite of what the shooter anticipated. We came together, in love, in pride, in humility and compassion.” Like Tyanna, Emore knew one of victims, Senator Clementa Pinckney. She added, “So many parts of the web of connections [are] now broken and tangled, so much sadness.”

But by Sunday, Mother Emanuel reopened for service. Thousands of people arrived to listen. People of all races, ethnicities, and religions. Despite the soaring temperatures, the city was packed, and buses were running to and from the historic area just to help ease traffic. Emore’s husband, Clyde Roberts, works for the American Red Cross. He has been stationed downtown to assist for several days. He recalled seeing the owner of a local events management company set up tents around town in order to help bring shade to the thousands of people at the vigils and services. People brought water and food supplies. The entire city was trying to come together, making new connections and untangling old ones.

On Sunday night, the crowds walked across the iconic Charleston bridge, coming from both sides to meet in the middle. Roberts and Emore speculate that there were 15,000 people in the area that night. Emore said, “Charlestonians are proud that they have come together.”  All of those people that we interviewed expressed the same feeling. Tyanna said that the population is showing “unity and forgiveness” in the face of this violence. She added, “The overall feeling went from shock to one of racial harmony.”

[Courtesy H. Emore] Pagan Prayer Service in Charleston 2015

[Courtesy H. Emore] Pagan Prayer Service in Charleston 2015

Along with the Emanuel opening, there was a city-wide call for all faith groups to hold their own services at the same time. Priestess SIRI of Coven Earthbound decided to take up that call and hosted an open Pagan ritual in Wannamaker County Park in North Charleston. She said, “There were many opportunities to go and pray throughout the Charleston area. There didn’t seem to be anyone stepping up to do a Pagan prayer service so I felt called to do so. I felt it was important for us as Pagans to express our love for the victims, their families and their church.”  It was well-attended and even attracted a few onlookers. She said, “We rang our bells in unison as I spoke the names and ages of each victim one by one … ”

[Courtesy H. Emore] Priestess Siri (in blue) leads Pagan Prayer Service

[Courtesy H. Emore] Priestess Siri (in blue) leads Pagan Prayer Service

Emore attended this event and noted that one of the participants said, “[AME]’s black community is showing us all what should be done. We have so much to learn.” Another women stood up and said, “We didn’t do this. But we’ve all been part of this happening. I want to apologize for my ancestors role in making this happen.” Emore said there were many tears.

These expressions of unity continued as the days progressed. Scott said, “I as a community leader am so very proud of my Pagan community as well as the Charleston community as a whole. We have not let such a malicious act of vile bigotry divide us … Our spirituality is deeply treasured and it will be the rock that we continue to stand on to rise above this tragedy.”

SIRI said, “We are Charleston Strong.”

Charleston’s small size, its living history and its mark as ‘The Holy City’ are all part of the magic that is helping to bind its people together. Tyanna said, “I hear so many things happening it is very hard to keep track, but what’s important is everybody is showing solidarity.”

Like the others interviewed, she used the word “pray” multple times. Tyanna said, “I pray for the victims and their families. I also pray for the family of Mr. Roof. Most people don’t understand why but you must realize that they are victims too. Although they did not pull the trigger to some people they are guilty by association. Not that [they] are all completely without blame …. but there are family members who are. I haven’t been Christian in a very long time, but I do remember that the Bible teaches forgiveness.”

As the city came together in prayer and in compassion, another issue bubbled to the surface in the wake of the discussions on racially-charged violence. There was immediate call to take down the Confederate flag from the State Capitol. Since Friday, there have been numerous “take down the flag” rallies in Columbia, South Carolina. Emore and other local Pagans attended one event saying, “it was beautiful and moving … People were embracing, smiling, weeping.”

Tyanna has joined a newly formed group called “Bring it down.” She said that, in the year 2000, a similar rally would have had 50% or less of its attendees supporting the removal of the flag. Now that number is much higher. Tyanna added that, in recent days, corporations, such as NASCAR, Amazon, eBay, and WalMart, have banned products with the flag or publicly distanced themselves from it.

The Confederate flag is a part of the South’s past, in various incarnations. NPR has published a short, but detailed, look at that timeline. As a native Southerner Scott said, “I for one am a member, as well as the other women in my family, of the Daughters of the Revolution and Daughters of the Confederacy and the flag is part of my history. I cannot change that. I can only learn from it.” Scott believes that the flag does not need to be on “statehouse grounds” but rather in a museum.

Since the “bring it down” call was resurrected, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who is from a Sikh background, has spoken out in support of removing the flag from the State Capitol. And, just yesterday, Alabama’s governor took down the Confederate flag from its State Capitol. A number of other Southern states have reportedly proposed phasing out the symbol on licenses plates.

Despite this growing movement to retire the Confederate flag to the annals of history, there are still many who disagree, either saying that its a piece Southern heritage or saying that its removal will not fix any social problems or stop racism. The conversation is on-going.

[Courtesy Photo] South Carolina Pagan Tyanna

[Courtesy Photo] South Carolina Pagan Tyanna

While there is still real lingering fear, especially among black residents and churches, Charleston and the people of South Carolina seem driven to continue supporting each other in the healing process as the victims are given private and public services. There have been two charities set up to help the families and Mother Emanuel. Around the country, many religious groups have been staging regular services and memorials devoted specifically to the Church and the victims.

Tyanna advised Pagans outside of South Carolina, “Help where you can. Join rallies; attend services. Do what you think is helpful and kind.” She said that a difference of religion shouldn’t stop you. “You aren’t helping another faith. You are just helping people.” And, Tyanna’s words express perfectly what the people of Charleston want the rest of the country to hear and see. They are “Charleston strong” in prayer, in compassion, in love, in respect, and in support of each other for social justice, peace, change, and growth into the future. The city is not perfect but its their city.

In honor of the lives of those killed:

Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons Sr and Myra Thompson.

What is remembered, lives.


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7 thoughts on “Charleston strong: from tragedy to unity

  1. I have declined chances to address South Carolina about the flag through on-line petitions. Not because I don’t want to see it gone; I very much do. But because I want South Carolinians to decide to take it down, and I don’t want to led any weight to an after-narrative about outside forces compelling a change in the SC way of life. That kind of narrative keeps the issue alive, and I choose not to contribute to that. YMMV.

    • Ultimately it does have to be their own decision, but it’s not illegitimate to bring outside pressure to bear on the issue. Jim Crow segregation and terror would not have ended without the concerted efforts of locals and outsiders to compel a change in a “way of life” in the Deep South.

      • I don’t disagree with any of your points, but question their relevancy. I never said it was illegitimate; I explained why I am refraining. The Confederate flag is not as dire an emergency as the totality of Jim Crow — which I remember quite well — and so the impulse to intervene lacks the same urgency.Perhaps you do not take seriously my concern for the narrative left behind. The Confederate flag is supported today by bitter narratives left over from the Civil Rights Movement. I choose not to lend myself to creating a copy of the same narrative.

  2. There is no lasting racial harmony in Charleston, and there won’t won’t be for a long time to come.

  3. What was said about the Angel Tree reminded me of another old tree. The Yew Tree by Brian McNeill, one of the founding members of Battlefiled Band. (for the entire song)

    A mile frae Pencaitland, on the road to the sea
    Stands a yew tree a thousand years old,
    And the old women swear by the grey o’ their hair
    That it knows what the future will hold,

    For the shadow of Scotland surround you,
    ‘Mid the kail and the corn and the kye.
    All the hopes and the fears of a thousand long years,
    Under the Lothian sky.

    My bonny yew tree, tell me what do you see.
    My bonny yew tree, tell me what do you see.

    Kail–vegetables in the brassica family
    Corn–in the UK, any grain
    Kye, kie–cows. ‘Cattle’ in the UK implies a few other domesticated large mammals.

  4. Kelly Soctt said, in part:

    I can’t begin to wrap my mind around the fact that this senseless act of violence happened on sacred ground. It does not matter that my spiritual path is different from those at Mother Emanuel … what matters is the sacredness of where they were when this occurred. The men and women opened their house of worship to a stranger, what we should all strive to do, to share and learn in comfort without judgment

    That was very similar to my reaction.

  5. Thank you for this detailed and moving account, replete with first hand reactions and descriptions of events.

    My heart goes out to the city and the community most effected. One can only pray that they may find comfort as they come to terms with what has happened. In the long term I do pray that as pain-filled and horrifying as these events have been, that positive changes for the community and society do take root allowing something good and new to one day bloom from this tragedy.

    Blessings and love to all.