On June 17th, I went to Charleston to attend services of remembrance for the nine men and women who lost their lives in the shooting at Mother Emanuel Church just a year ago. I was part of the delegation from Civilitas—a coalition of Christians from all walks of life who want to promote understanding, dialogue and, most of all, action around our society’s most difficult issues. I am still processing the impact of that day.
First came the shock at how small the crowd was in the auditorium set apart for the civic ecumenical series of remembrance. They had expected several thousand people. I am not a good calculator of crowds, but I do know there were far too many empty seats. Local and state politicians—including the South Carolina governor-- and church leaders made moving tributes to the nine men and women who had been brutally shot at close range in the context of a church prayer meeting just because of the color of their skin. But most of the audience was from local African-American churches. Gone were the large multi-racial Charleston crowds who, just a year ago, had gathered in disbelief that such a crime could happen in their midst. How quickly we as humans just go on with our lives—despite vows that this particular event must not happen again. (And that was all before Minnesota, Louisiana, Dallas...)
Two days after the June 17th services, I attended a large historic downtown Charleston church where I have often worshipped when visiting in that city. I felt as if I were a million miles away from the Charleston I had been part of just two days before. The audience was all white, and, except for a brief mention by the pastor of the anniversary of the killing at Mother Emanuel, life seemed to be going very much as usual. To be honest, I felt quite judgmental. Where were these Charleston citizens during Friday’s commemorative services? Then I pulled back, remembering that I am a Northerner. How could I possibly understand or have a right to speak? This is not my city.
I realized that I, too, had been in Charleston a dozen times prior to June 17th and had not truly seen any of the city that had been laid out before me during my interaction with the members of the Mother Emanuel Church. I had seen only the city that I had chosen to see—the city that related to my particular purposes on any given occasion. It was not that I was trying not to see a fuller picture of Charleston; I had just kept to my errands, to my tasks, etc.
I will continue to process June 17th. I have much more to learn. But one thing I am taking with me for sure is the desire to see more clearly and fully wherever I am. It is not easy to live with our eyes fully open. The natural thing on any given day is to see only what relates to our goals, to the world as we have already ordered it in our minds. Living with open eyes is a daily commitment—one that will often not be convenient. I am reminded of Iris Murdoch’s words to the effect that “courage is the ability to sustain a clear vision.” Living this way will take courage, but it is part of being fully open to what God wants to teach me and what he is asking of me—not just in the big moments like June 17th, but every day.
May you have the courage to live today with eyes fully open to all that is there to be seen.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976