From pulpits across Charlotte Sunday, pastors – black and white – decried last week’s massacre in Charleston. And many told their congregations that an American society still addicted to the historic sins of racism, hate and violence bears much of the blame.
At Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Pastor Clifford Jones Sr. said the murder of nine African Americans during a Wednesday prayer meeting at historic Emanuel AME Church left him with a kind of nausea he had not felt since the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham that killed four young girls.
And Jones, speaking to about 2,500 worshipers, suggested that Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white racist now in jail for the gun deaths, might have felt emboldened by more recent deaths of other African Americans. Those deaths included the choking of Eric Garner in New York by police who were not charged in the case.
“Forgive me – it wasn’t the gun,” Jones said of Roof’s rampage. “It was (a) society that allows persons to grow up in the land of the free, the home of the brave and have no respect for God, for the church, and specifically for African Americans.”
Maybe, Jones added, Roof “saw (police) choking a man and got a license to think it’s OK to kill black people.”
Jones also passed along words of thanks from former North Carolina Sen. Malcolm Graham for the congregation’s calls and emails of support. Graham, a member of Friendship Missionary Baptist, had a sister who was gunned down at the Charleston church. Cynthia Hurd would have celebrated her 55th birthday Sunday.
Jones also announced that, starting Monday, the prominent black church of 8,000-plus on Beatties Ford Road would have a law enforcement officer on duty during the week – just like it does on Sunday.
At Elevation Church’s Blakeney campus, Pastor Steven Furtick, who grew up in Moncks Corner, S.C., said the church massacre was especially devastating to him not only because it was so close to his hometown – about 30 miles – but because he had been embraced by an African-American church in high school and invited to sing gospel songs with the church's choir.
He criticized people who blamed the shooting on “the devil” and not racism.
“Yes it is about that,” Furtick said. “Yes, racism still exists. White people, yes it does exist.”
Furtick said his congregation overall is roughly 28 percent African-American and that the diversity of his church is increasing. At Sunday's service, many in the congregation were black.
Furtick often addressed the white members of his church Sunday.
“I'm talking to my white brothers and sisters,” he said. “We assume everything is equal. But we will never know the conversations (African-American parents) are having with their children. We need to shut up and listen.”
Pastor James Howell, who’s also from South Carolina, told his predominantly white flock at Myers Park United Methodist Church that it’s time for Charlotteans to wake up and acknowledge the racial distrust in this city.
“People tell me we don’t have a race problem in Charlotte; but let’s agree never to say that again. We have a huge race problem,” Howell said. “We don’t know each other, we don’t love each other, we don’t trust each other. We say we could never be a Ferguson or a Baltimore – but how do we know this? We have not made our community a real community.”
Sunday morning worshipers at First Baptist West, a Charlotte church founded in 1867 by former slaves, heard from a guest preacher who teaches black church history at Duke Divinity School.
J. Kameron Carter called the killings “an attack on the souls of black folk” and “what the black church represents” – openness, inclusiveness and the kind of welcome that the prayer group at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church offered Roof before he shot them dead.
“But you can’t snuff out love,” Carter said. “Wounded love is still love. And that’s what the black church is all about.”
In a show of solidarity for Charleston churches, which rang their bells in unity Sunday, white and black members at Charlotte’s Caldwell Presbyterian Church rang its bell nine times – once for each victim of the shootings.
Excerpts from other Charlotte sermons Sunday:
▪ The Rev. Nancy Kraft, at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church: “The events in Charleston last week are further evidence of the raging storm of racism that continues to batter our lives as Americans and threatens to destroy us. It’s so scary that we try to pretend it doesn’t exist. But if we don’t have the courage to face this storm in faith, fear will win out and the only excuse we’ll have for our inaction is sheer cowardice.”
▪ The Rev. Jay Leach, at Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte: “The hate, the terror, the racial motivation are deep within our society. This young man was not acting alone. He was aided and abetted by an evil woven into the fabric of our nation, evident in all regions of our country, ever more undeniable even to those who wish to ignore it.”
▪ The Rev. Joslyn Schaefer, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church: “In Jesus, God clears up any misconceptions about whether or not God uses violence to achieve God’s purpose. Twice in the Gospels his disciples offer to respond to the world’s violence with more violence, and Jesus says NO! Jesus’ response is an unequivocal NO! Answering violence with violence just gets us stuck deeper and deeper into trenches of hate.”
Want to talk about it?
MeckMin, an interfaith group with about 100 member congregations, will sponsor a 90-minute discussion Monday night about the Charleston tragedy and how Charlotte should move forward.
“More Than a Vigil: A Community in Conversation for Healing & Change” will begin at 7 p.m. in Belk Chapel at Queens University, 1900 Selwyn Ave. No registration is necessary.