By Aryani Ong, AAAF Reporter
Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that Dylann Storm Roof was appealing his death sentence for killing nine black parishioners at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, SC. The headline evoked horror and pain, again. But the photo under the headine was more striking: a group of women clasping hands in prayer in front of the church on the day after the shooting on June 17, 2015.
I knew that spot. I had stood there, too.
In 2018, I was in Charleston for summer vacation. Upon arriving, I had slipped away from the family clan to visit the church. The church had a familiar feel – a Gothic revival with spires and arches amidst a quiet neighborhood. Few passed by on the street. There are no markings of the church as the site of one of the nation’s more horrific hate crimes.
As I walked up the stairs to the front doors, I had an eery feeling of the shooter approaching the church. Roof knew what he was doing. He had done online research on the AME church. Founded in 1816, the Emanual AME Church was the oldest AME church in the South. What he had read was that the Emanuel AME church was founded in 1816 by slaves and free blacks. Besides worship, the church-goers planned slave rebellions.
Unlike in the photo, the women praying, the yellow tape and the memorial flowers were long gone. Only the double-paneled doors stood in front of me. I didn’t have a plan, except to pay respects. I bowed my head. The doors were locked, and I was both comforted by the security and saddened at the same time. I reflected upon the privilege that I have as a Catholic to freely enter into churches, unlike my Jewish brethren, among others.
Churches, like other places of worships, are sanctuaries. People come to pray and to congregate. When Roof had walked inside, the parishioners inside had welcomed him. He “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him,” he had told police.
Religious institutions are the fifth highest targeted locations for hate crimes, following homes, streets, schools and parking lots. They account for 3.7 percent of hate crime locations nationwide, according to the FBI’s 2018 hate crimes statistics. But hate crimes have an effect significantly larger than their numbers. Hate crimes target victims based on group characteristics such as race, religion or gender. In other words, hate perpetrators strike at all members of the targeted group.
In the past two years, the news have reported on high profile cases involving places of worship: Chabad of Poway in San Diego, CA in 2019, Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA and First Baptist Church in Jeffersontown, KY in 2018 and the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, WI in 2012. After each one, hundreds of people have marched, held vigils and called for action. They understood that the attacks are not to be counted by numbers, or viewed as messages specific to Jewish Americans, African Americans or Sikh Americans. Hate crimes shatter the inviolate safe havens of communities and minds.
As a civil rights attorney, I’ve called on communities to respond to hate crimes immediately. The sooner that communities can affirm their values to diversity and inclusion, the less likelythat the targets and their groups withdraw from society and the hate perpetrators feelemboldened. I’ve been to rallies, spoken before audiences nationally and before the UN, documented hate crimes and advocated for tougher legislation. I even wrote one of the earliet field guides on community reponses to hate crimes in the field.
But ultimately, I see that the solution lies within each of us. As Rev. Martin Luther King exhorted, do we choose to dignify each person based on their character, or the color of their skin? Do we choose hate or love?
After the Charleston shooting, I set aside the advocates tools. I sat down, and wrote a letter to each of the victim’s families. The following nine victims had names and lives. I tailored the letters to them: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson and Rev.Daniel Simmons Sr.
At Roof’s sentencing hearing, Felicia Sanders, the mother of one of the nine victims, displayed the most powerful weapon against hate crimes: forgiveness. “I forgive you,” she said. And the world heard her.
Gearing up for the presidential elections later this November, the Emanuel AME Church has become a campaign stopover for candidates. As with the visitors that have come to the churchafter the shooting, the pastor remains grounded in the faith. In a 2017 interview with CNN, the current pastor, Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, said that he welcomes visitors to the “Mother Emanuel.” The church is open to the public for regular service. “If they come to be a spectator, who knows, they might leave a worshiper,” Manning said. “If they come … out of curiosity, they may leave having a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.”
The shooter had a mission: to start a race war. He failed. The Emanuel AME Church, its pastor and parishioners will not be drawn into a Hatfield-McCoy-like conflict of hate. Telling was the choice that the church had made to land on a memorial design based on the architect’s message of forgiveness, and not any drawings. Two high-backed benches like sheltering wings will invite visitors into a garden space.
The Emanuel AME Church, together with the parishioners, took the darkness that they were plunged into, and by their faith, transformed itself into a beacon of inspiration for the rest of us. So, to me, the photo of the church evokes a more powerful image – and message – of the Charleston shooting than the shooter’s headshot ever will. The church as a quiet, dignified emblem of community tolerance, unity and healing. The church as the juxtaposition of good and evil. The church as a remembrance of innocent lives claimed. And, finally, the church that repeatedly stood as the bulwark against hate attacks on a diverse America.
Aryani Ong is an AAAF reporter and community advocate who has worked on issues concerning Asian Americans for the last 30 years. Based in Maryland, she also helms Six Hues to tell diverse perspectives as means of advocacy.
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