As a religion reporter, I have spent many Sundays over the years in African-American churches. Often I was the only white person in attendance. That never seemed to matter – until last Sunday.
Just days before, a white stranger walked into a historical black church in Charleston, joined a Bible study group, and then, after an hour, pulled a gun and murdered nine African-Americans who had welcomed him.
Sunday, I started my day at First Baptist West, a black church in Charlotte founded in 1867 by 66 former slaves. I’d come to hear what Pastor Ricky Woods and J. Kameron Carter, a learned guest preacher from Duke Divinity School, would say about the Charleston massacre.
Before the service, I settled into a pew in the back. That’s when I saw Glenn Burkins, a member of First Baptist West and a fellow journalist, who edits Qcitymetro. “You must have gotten some disconcerting looks today,” he told me.
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I wasn’t sure what he meant. Then I understood. Though I had been to First Baptist West before, this time was different.
Did members wonder whether I was there to harm them?
Later, Glenn told me that, while no one was actually scared, there was an awareness of me. “Trust me: You were noticed,” he told me. “There were comments.”
Glenn’s report, which initially rattled me, offered something invaluable: I had been given a glimpse of how others see things.
That perspective, more than anything in my notes, gave me a sense of how especially devastating the attacks at Emanuel AME Church must have been for the African-American community.
Black churches were born in the 19th century as a reaction against slavery and segregation. The founders of First Baptist West started their own church after whites, even in the years after the Civil War, insisted that blacks worship from the balcony.
So from the beginning, African-Americans who were routinely abused by the majority white culture turned each black church into a refuge, a holy place, a home and a carefully tended garden where its members could bloom into great preachers and teachers, great singers and musicians, great civil rights leaders and political stars.
In 1963, Alabama Ku Klux Klansmen had infamously invaded this sanctuary, blowing up a church in Birmingham – a blast that killed four young girls. And now this racist rampage in Charleston.
I hope all of us, black and white, were horrified and heartbroken by what happened there. At my own Wednesday prayer group this week, we remembered the victims and their families. But I also hope those who are white will understand the wound is deepest among our African-American brothers and sisters.
Yet if members at First Baptist West were concerned about me, they didn’t show it. Quite the opposite: During the “Welcome of Worshipers,” several came up to me with warm greetings and outstretched hands.
Whatever their concerns may have been, it became clear to me that these good people, these believers in the radical love and forgiveness taught by Jesus, were not going to let that hater in Charleston turn their beloved black church into a walled-up fortress of exclusion.