Friday, June 19, 2015

Charleston: A Violation of Sacred Space

I was not alive during the Civil Rights movement. But if I talked to someone who grew up then, it would be unnerving to realize how disturbingly similar our living experiences are. We could talk about conflicts that arise simply because that blacks can occupy the same swimming pool as whites. We could talk about the inexcusable police cruelty on unarmed black men. We could talk about the arrival of the National Guard to quell violence in areas rife with racial conflict.

And now, as of this week, we can now talk about our reaction to a white man, armed with a handgun and unspeakable hatred, who opened fire in a place of black worship.

I have no words to express how I feel about this terrorist event in Charleston (yes, it is a terrorist act) for myriad reasons. There are many directions one can take in response to this event, but for now, I am contemplating on having a sacred space ruthlessly and perversely violated like the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church just experienced this week.

I feel a deep connection to Clementa Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson. Why? Because while they were sitting in their Bible study class on Wednesday evening, I was also in a scripture study class at my place of worship here in Boston. Like these victims, I understand how uplifting and edifying it can be to worship in a sacred space.

But what is it, one may ask, that creates this sacred space? Part of the answer is that churches imbue a spirit of trust that is quietly disappearing from American culture. Even in the most historically important and visually arresting edifices, there are often no cumbersome security lines. There are no background checks. There is seldom a suspicious glance at a visitor. And, in many cases, there is no entrance fee. Rather, a church building generally seeks to be a visual representation of God's presence and love, as it offers its inhabitants a spirit of respect and impartiality. And in return, the unspoken but expected rule is to treat fellow congregants in a similar manner as you pray and worship to this same God. As a group, we are responsible to ensuring that this space remains holy.

I have relied on this spirit of trust each time I go to my scripture study class and my Sunday worship services. I place deep confidence in the strangers whom I worship with that we will choose to see each other as God sees us and respect one another's humanity.

So, in the wake of Charleston:

I am deeply angered that someone chose to occupy--and violently destroy--churchgoers' sacred space.

I am infuriated that I was able to leave my church building safely on Wednesday evening, and others in this country cannot enjoy this same privilege.

May we all pray and work harder toward brotherhood, peace, and justice in this country.

Photo by Stephen Melkisethian.