Editor’s note: This article is the third part of a series describing the journey to focus on African-Americans in the Denver Church of Christ. Read Part I-II and Part IV-V. Chris Jacobs is an elder in Denver, and lived in Tokyo for many years, serving as an administrator for many of the Asian churches in our fellowship. These articles can be found on his blog.
Later that year (2015) in June, there was a tragic shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina where nine black members of a church were murdered by a white assailant. With the support of our leadership, I prepared and read the below statement to our congregation the following Sunday:
“I’m sure most of us are very aware of the tragic shooting deaths that took place in the historic AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, just 11 days ago. We’d like to take a moment to reflect and pray for those involved and for our nation.
Twelve people, in a setting not unlike ours today, gathered together seeking God through Bible study and prayer. The 12 were black Americans. With Christian love and warmth, these 12 welcomed a troubled young white man into their fellowship. As you know, this young man with unspeakable hatred in his heart and with a misguided desire to inspire others to join in his depravity, shot and killed nine of the 12 precious souls.
Sadly, news of mass shootings in our great, yet flawed nation, have become far too commonplace. This one in particular touched the heart of the nation because it was motivated by racial hatred and because it happened in a church. It served as a very painful reminder of historical oppression and injustices suffered by blacks in America over many decades.
The Bible makes it very clear in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
In our vernacular, I believe Jesus would say, there is neither white nor black, Asian nor Latino, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In Jesus’ church we are all one – we call each other brother and sister, we are of one family; and perhaps you may think, it should go without saying, but we all want to express, especially to our black brothers and sisters, we stand with you in our condemnation of any kind of racism. Those of us who are not minorities cannot fully understand the experience of living with prejudice. But we want to, as Peter instructs, be sympathetic and compassionate and help you carry one another’s burdens as much as we can.
Secondly, this event has touched our hearts, especially for us as Christians because it happened in a church. I was touched by President Obama’s description of what church means to many black Americans, in his eulogy for one of the victims, Clementa Pickney, who was also a state representative in South Carolina:
To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief. Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church. The church is and always has been the center of African-American life — a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships. Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah — rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart — and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.
This description helps me to understand what church means in the African American community and I hope it helps you as well.
If we can take any encouragement from an event as tragic as this, it has been heartening to see the response of people of all races; coming to the support of the families of the victims, both personally and in prayer; and a call for the removal of symbols of racial bigotry, not just by blacks, but by those of other races and by both sides of the political isle. I remember in the 1960’s when there was great racial tension and even bombings in churches attended by blacks. At that time there was not a universal condemnation of these cowardly acts, by ignorant and evil people. When I see the contrast to today, I take encouragement. At the same time, we understand, we live in a fallen world – the spiritual battle between good and evil will not end until Jesus returns. And we eagerly anticipate that day.
The example of the families of the victims has also been a light shining in a dark place – rather than seeking revenge, they’ve have been obedient to the central message of the gospel in their willingness to forgive the shooter. May each of us take notice and be as quick to forgive whatever grievances we have toward one another.”
The response to this reading, especially by our black brothers and sisters, was tearful and full of gratitude. All Americans of conscience felt the loss of those nine precious souls, but it struck me how deeply it was felt by blacks. Events like this understandably bring back horrifying memories of centuries of unjust and inhumane treatment by those in power. As a white man, I cannot completely understand what my black brothers and sisters feel, but I can be compassionate and sympathetic and let them know I am on their side. I also feel sorry that I had not been more sensitive and quick to understand and respond to this need expressed by our members.