by Jay Monaco
Last week, after months of careful planning, a fascist, imperialist, white supremacist terrorist walked into a historic South Carolina church, where a Bible study was being held. He debated Scripture with the attendees, who were kind and welcoming. When the Bible study was over, he shot them all, leaving nine human beings dead.
He shot them because they were black.
He shot them because they existed.
Even those of us well-versed in systemic injustice, in insidious structural racism, in the violence inherent to an unequal society are caught off guard by acts of such naked depravity. Nonetheless, it’s on we who remain to carry on, to try if only in vain to find a way forward.
On Monday night in Lowell, nearly 40 gathered by the steps of Christ Church United to mourn collectively, pay respects, and express their outrage and grief. The candlelight vigil was organized by Community Advocates for Justice and Equality (CAJE) and hosted by the Rev. Dr. Peter Lovett. Even before the candles were lit, banners were unfurled, literature handed out, many friends were made, and much lemonade was consumed to ward off the oppressive humidity. Local residents stopped by to lay flowers on the makeshift monument on the church steps before continuing on their way.
As the white candles were passed out and lit, Rev. Lovett began the informal ceremony with some brief opening remarks. This church, he explained, is a place where all people are welcome, where all people are loved, where everyone is afforded dignity solely on the basis of their humanity. He spoke with a quiet defiance in a spirit of joy that it was possible for all of us to gather together on this night, expressing the faithful hope, even in the midst of grief and outrage, that this gathering could itself represent “one more step on the road to shalom.”
“WE LIVE IN A RACIST SOCIETY. It doesn’t matter what color you are, we are all infected by racism. I encourage you to step into un-comfortability, and I encourage you to have these conversations with your family members. So I didn’t just say those names for the sake of saying it – we need to remember those names. We need to talk about those names. And we need to confront the racists in our society so that tragedies like this don’t happen again.” — Rashiidah Leach
He handed the mic to Tina Degree, who led the somber, glowing crowd in a moment of silence for the nine victims. She shared remarks of her own before handing the mic to another attendee. Who handed it to another. And another. And another. Those who had come to gather this Monday night weren’t here for passive commemoration or quiet sorrow. We gathered to speak out, gathered to talk to one another, perhaps now more urgently than ever.
As everyone spoke, we laughed and cried. We felt the pain of others coming to meet our own pain. Listening to one another’s words, we learned. If only for those brief moments before the candles melted into puddles of wax in their paper cups, we could take for granted that we were not merely individuals lost, in anguish, in confusion, but a people, a community, collectively holding no small measure of power in our words and souls and collective action.
As Dan Tuttle said, “The thing with community is when things go bad, at least we have each other.”
The attack in Charleston can serve as a call to action, to root out purveyors of right-wing extremism in our communities, to confront hate groups aggressively and head-on, to offer them neither quarter nor mercy, to work tirelessly to see their extermination. But the challenge before us is much broader than that, and often hits much closer to home. Rashiidah Leach read the names of the deceased before issuing a poignant challenge. “I want to encourage everyone out here to be uncomfortable. We live in a racist society. It doesn’t matter what color you are, we are all infected by racism. I encourage you to step into un-comfortability, and I encourage you to have these conversations with your family members. So I didn’t just say those names for the sake of saying it – we need to remember those names. We need to talk about those names. And we need to confront the racists in our society so that tragedies like this don’t happen again.”
Marisa Shea took several minutes to read personal details of each of those killed. She told us where they went to school, which of them had kids, even the little things their friends said about them. Afterwards she paused. “So that’s it,” she said, “but…that was a lot. That was a lot of life there.”
After who desired to speak had done so, John McEachin spoke for a moment about the mission of CAJE and some upcoming events before Rev. Lovett said a closing prayer. In conclusion, we sang “We Shall Overcome.”
Perhaps we shall. I hope we shall. If we do overcome all this, it will be through joining together not merely when it’s time for candlelight vigils, but through linking arms for the long haul. Our work is not on some far-off mythic battlefield, it’s right here. Today. Tomorrow. At home. Where we work. In the streets where we live.
“We have to change it in this community,” Tina Degree said, “before it starts looking like Ferguson and it starts looking like Charleston.”
* * *
Cynthia Hurd, 54
Rev Clementa Pinckney, 41
Rev Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45
Tywanza Sanders, 26
Ethel Lance, 70
Rev Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49
Susie Jackson, 87
Rev Daniel Simmons Sr, 74
Myra Thompson, 59
Rest in peace. May we do you honor, may your spirits live on in, above all else, all our actions. Starting now.