When the news surrounding the events in Charleston, S.C., broke last week, many took to the internet to share their pain, their outrage, their disbelief and their solidarity with those affected most deeply. Posts by entities in the church ran the gamut of calling us a broken society to a need for prayer to declaring the desire for Christians to actively engage in movements against gun violence and racism. For me, as I put out a lone post on Facebook, there were simply “no words,” or perhaps to be clearer, “no more words.” We have been speaking words against racism and gun violence for so long, it is a struggle to find new words. But obviously, find them and speak them we must! And sadly, regardless of how many words and how well they are spoken, there will always be those individuals — even groups — who cannot or will not hear.
This story of Charleston was heavy on the hearts of the Synod of the Trinity staff and leadership as we headed into our June Assembly meeting this past Monday and Tuesday. How do we “meet” with the events of Charleston so near to our gathering? What might that look like? How do we acknowledge the horror of these shootings? What do we add to our agenda? What do we change? What authentic opportunities might there be for us to be “with” one another as Christ-followers who are processing the reality that events like Charleston and Ferguson and Sandy Hook and — too many to name — still happen in this country?
Moderator Barbara Chaapel had agreed to begin our meeting with some kind of statement or prayer relating to the massacre. She was in prayer over what form that opening would take, and we trusted that it would take the shape it needed to for our time together. Was that enough? Was there something else that needed to be part of our meeting? When Vice Moderator Johnnie Monroe came to our final planning dinner visibly weighted down and struggling, we recognized that indeed, we — as a body — needed to go further. Perhaps we could not really move on well at all together if we did not spend some time on this scenario that was too fresh to set aside!
But the Spirit had been at work long before we knew it, and the opportunity to have meaningful conversation had already been sitting before us in the “holy” docket! A visioning component on race relations could easily shift focus to allow commissioners time to listen to one another and imagine possibilities of how Jesus would call us as individuals and congregations to respond. We agreed to “float the docket” (so said Stated Clerk Wayne Yost) and give our hearts, spirits and voices the time that was needed. In hindsight, how could we even begin to have conversations last Monday around race and difference that did NOT start with Charleston?
And so we began our meeting Monday morning — with fear and trust — to engage with one another by naming our pain, confessing our own culpability and claiming Christ as the One who could and would redeem. Barbara’s statement to the body called us to go deeply within ourselves and our faith as we renewed our hope and call to live out Christ’s path of love in the midst of — in spite of — all that is not of God.
As the day progressed and we came to the visioning conversation around race, commissioners were ready to share their own responses to Charleston and other events with one another. They engaged attentively with their own stories, fears, faith and hopes. And they stepped into the difficult space of wondering together what Christ would do and so challenge them to do. Some of the stories around the table were difficult for others to hear. The painful realities that led to Charleston were closer than many might have wanted to admit. They talked and processed in small groups and then reflected across the whole room, and it was evident to me in all of this that commissioners were sharing in a way that made room for one another. They were holding on to the community in Christ that had been grown among them while allowing the authentic stories and feelings to speak for themselves. It was not easy for some, but I believe that the kingdom grew in those moments, and so too the kingdom come.
Our intentional time of engagement ended with prayer — a prayer begun by Johnnie Monroe — and when words failed him, continued by Madeline Valentine. The Spirit danced between them and among us all as our community was challenged and changed and challenged yet again.
Are we done with conversations and renewed heartfelt commitments to act around racism and violence? No. We have hardly begun. And I recognize that as much as I try to tell the story of our meeting and how God was present among us, with and through us, words — again — fail me. Did you have to be there? Probably. But what I know is this: the presence and power of the Holy Spirit was palpable in more ways than I can begin to share. And because of God’s faithfulness to make holy presence known, I am sure that few who were gathered in that room will ever hear of another racial shooting incident without recalling the moments that we spent together earlier this week. They will also remember the clear call of Christ in those moments to reach to one another in community, and to step out — even with baby steps — to stop the Charlestons and so many other recent racial and gun-related tragedies from happening. Indeed, O Lord — Thy Kingdom come.
It is my prayer that this may be so.
Susan Faye Wonderland
Synod of the Trinity