For the Grieving: Letters to Charleston

Mourners gathered beside the Chicago River last week to grieve for those killed during an attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: Bob Simpson)
Mourners gathered beside the Chicago River last week to grieve for those killed during an attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: Bob Simpson)

Last week, amid our discussions of how we could express love and support for those grieving in Charleston, I offered to create some space, here on this page, for friends of mine, here in Chicago, who wanted to share words of love for the fallen, and for those mourning their loss. The responses I received came from some of the most loving people I know. Radical Black organizers and educators, fighting for the liberation of their people, supportive allies, who offer up their skills in support of the marginalized, and a dear friend, who tirelessly provides childcare for those who are balancing movement building with the needs of their own children. The following are their words.

Dear angels of Charleston,

By faith I still believe in your God and your peaceful home going into love and prosperity forever. You are as valuable and precious as all the women and men in our family graced by the most beautiful hues of brown and black this world has ever seen. Your life and your death will cause those of us who are touched by your testimony to breathe deeper and live fuller so we may take this fight for justice unto freedom. Even more than that we will reflect on the value of your lives and act in accordance with our affirmation that Black Lives Matter. In this way, among others, let it be known that your life and death can never be in vain. While we weep over the ignorance that crossed your paths in your final prayer, it is not time for sadness. It is time for us to honor your lives through our acts of courage and bold love that confronts evil even in the face of death. Your lives now add to the legacy of faith and resistance against White Supremacy made strong by the hand of the Lord Almighty. May we do all that we can to pay homage to the truth of your light.

– Johnaé Strong

I grew up in the South.  I have visited Charleston in all its southern, slavery-rooted, white supremacist glory.  I have visited the sites where the enslaved plotted their liberation, and I grew up in the county where Dylann Roof was collected by law enforcement yesterday.  I say “collected” because that’s what happened.  He, unlike people of color, was not gunned down by the Shelby Police Department, or beat to death.  Still in the aftermath of his white supremacist rampage, having murdered several people, he was collected.

To the families of loved ones who were murdered or injured in Charleston Tuesday night, we send deep love, light, and strength to you from Chicago.  Chicago has deep southern roots because many folk from the South migrated to Chicago in search of better opportunities for their families and most importantly as a means to escape lynching.  We unite with you through those deep multi-generational roots and mourn, love, protect, and anger in your name.  In the spirit of Denmark Vesey, we honor your struggle and pain.

For my fellow white southerners who find themselves on the anti-racist side of the political spectrum… this is a call for all of you to stand up in solidarity, not as leaders of Black movements, but as supporters of Black directives.  We are witnessing the murder of Black folks at the hands of the state and white terrorists, and still the vast majority of us who claim some sort of liberal-leaning politics haven’t a care in the world.

– Jennifer Ash

“You are not to stand idle when your neighbor’s life is at stake. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:16. These words of Hebrew scripture are a constant reminder to me as a believer in God that I have a responsibility to look after my neighbors, and to care for their lives. We live in a society that is neglectful of the lives of Black people, and white supremacy still works its evil lies into our culture. As a white man, if I am to life out my faith, I have a great responsibility to disrupt and fight against racism and white supremacy. And I know that the Lord God is on our side because “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed… is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in LOVE.” – Psalm 103 6, 8. My Sisters and Brothers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and all people of color who face violence and racism in the United States deserve Peace, Love and Justice and I call on others of faith, particularly white people of faith, to demand that they receive it.

– Dylan Bellisle

When I heard the news of last week’s tragedy, I thought a great deal about the safety and comfort that sacred places of worship provide us. In my mind, I could hear the words, “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end, Amen.” I pictured my childhood parish, the only building in the world where I am not afraid to walk in the dark. I am afraid of dark corners in my own home, but not an inch of that old building frightens me.

I won’t say that I imagined what it was like to have that deep abiding peace ripped apart by gunshots, because I can’t. I won’t say that I imagined someone brutally killing these people I love, people I have known since I was four years old, because that’s a pain that I could never imagine. I think about the gravity of the safety I feel in my church, and I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to look over your shoulder for decades because people want to burn down your house of worship, kill your believers, and desecrate the space that should be the center of your life.

I pulled my Book of Common Prayer off of the shelf and read Psalm 4, and the last few verses dried up my mouth: Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD. You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase. I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety.

As a fellow Christian, I pray that the congregation of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church will one day feel that deep sense of safety. And as a Christian white person, I will be sober and watchful, as I am instructed in 1 Peter, and resist any force that would steal that safety from them.

– Sarah A.

In times of horror and strife, my mind’s reliable impulse is to wonder about the children. How are the children? Reflecting on the racist, white-supremacist attack on worshippers at Mother Emanuel, that’s what I’ve been thinking on: that a child survived this massacre, by “playing dead,” as they say. My first thought was: ‘OH GOD – CAN YOU IMAGINE! Oh, God – that child! In that moment – look at what she did to survive!’ And then I remember- and am grateful- that God and nature protected her by design: she was in a state of shock! She shut down, because her body recognized the overload and laid a blanket of shock over her, to slow her breath and heart. How awful and terrible and perfect and thank God!

In the worst of times, I look to laughter and gratitude to sustain my life, but I’m not ready for the sound of laughter yet, so I’ll share my Gratitudes with you.

Thank God for this child’s life. For that moment where she opened her eyes to life, to a breath and heartbeat that she still claimed for her own: I am grateful. For the person who was desperate to know if she lived or died, and the moment they found out the truth, that  their worry broke into shattered relief: I am grateful. For the genius design of the body, that knows better than the mind that drives it when too much is too much, and puts us into shock, so that we may live to fight another day: I am grateful.

And I am in shock for our people in this nation.

Too much is too much for us, and as an educator, I see the large and small ways this literally degrades our children every day. When I think of your girl, my arms reach across the midwest, through the south, finding and holding her in a shaking, desperate grip, to be released only to the safest caretaker that will hold her just as tight. That is what my spirit is doing, reaching out to protect this child, and so many children burned with the poison gas of racism, white supremacy, and ignorance. But my spirit has limits, and our communities need more than one reaching set of invisible arms. We need a union of spirits, and bodies and minds, united in action. Baltimore needed that, and still does. Ferguson did and does. Chicago where I live, Charleston, too, and everywhere in this nation. Children in all of these communities are learning the lessons of oppression, racism, white supremacy and survival. What kind of lessons will we show them as they manage to live to see another day. I pray we love them all as our own, and teach them to fight and win. Until then, I send love and solidarity to you and your children. Bless.

– Atena Danner

1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on Creatrix: Blogging Mamalife, Creativity and the Human Experience and commented:
    This is from my friend Kelly’s blog – a series of brief messages from various authors (myself included) to the hurt and grieving in Charleston, SC, after the now-infamous terrorist attack on a group of black churchgoers in their city. I urge you to read these words of deep compassion, faith and comfort (I took some comfort in them, anyway). I am inspired by the solidarity we can show each other. I am deeply grateful to Kelly Hayes for putting this together; it was healing to organize my thoughts for this, and also to read what others had to say. Bless!


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