Emmanuel AME: Just Be. And Be Not Afraid

Mark 4:35-41

Emmanuel.jpegThis is an excerpt from an article written for the Huffington Post by Rev. Otis Moss, III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

The doors of the church are [still] open.

The question running through the minds of many African Americans, particularly black church folks is where and when will we ever be safe? Earlier this week nine prayer warriors were massacred at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina…

On Wednesday night, members of Emanuel gathered with their pastor in what should have been a safe place…Seated in their midst was a young white man who was a stranger, yet welcomed as a friend…The young man was seated next to the pastor, where he returned the church’s hospitality with unimaginable inhumanity.

The AME denomination was founded as a protest against racism [Yolanda Pierce]. This is true of Emanuel AME, affectionately known as “Mother” Emanuel. Its storied history dates back almost 200 years. Mother Emanuel endured despite being burned down, outlawed and destroyed by an earthquake.

Emanuel AME has been the target of racist attacks, legal harassment and arson. [Despite each [calamity] that stormed the doors of the church, [Emmanuel] was committed to teaching the south “a more excellent way” called love. Emanuel at every turn has responded with love rooted in justice by teaching literacy, producing leaders, protesting unequal treatment, fighting for economic parity and demanding the confederate flag be replaced by a symbol for all South Carolinians. Mother Emanuel exemplifies the best of our religious tradition–liberation, love and reconciliation.

This storm too shall pass.

Despite this breach, the black church will continue to serve as a sanctuary against racism and hatred. We are encouraged by the images of South Carolinians of all races coming together to mourn and remember the fallen.

When we see the faces of those who were lost and learn of their lives, we are devastated not just by the senselessness of the act but also because we know these victims. We know them–the civil servants, the recent graduate, the librarian, the track coach, the grandfather and the great-grandmother.

In honor of those nine souls and of the countless others who preceded them, we will continue to exist, to protest, to remain open, to stand, and to pray. The doors of the church are open.

So many of us mourn with the families, friends, and church members of Emmanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina. In Philly, Mother Bethel AME, led by my colleague Rev. Mark Tyler, hosted a prayer vigil for hundreds of people. And Rev. Tyler’s commitment to interfaith cooperation and welcome shined through. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and many others gathered at Mother Bethel for prayer, mourning, and healing.

In spite of the fear, confusion, and sadness—

Their doors were open.

I don’t have much to say about what happened other than it makes me sick, angry, and sad. So I cannot imagine what others feel. This kind of storm seems insurmountable. And where is God in all this?

So I suppose it’s appropriate to reflect on Mark’s Gospel story about some horrified disciples stuck in a boat in the middle of a storm while their teacher Jesus slept.

They were doing what they were supposed to do. They were listening to Jesus, reaching out to people who had been marginalized by religion, society, and government. They were in a boat going to the other side where others did not dare to go. And then, without warning, the storm came. They weren’t protected; they were vulnerable, exposed, afraid.

Jesus was asleep, unresponsive to their fears.

Until they awakened him and then he asked:

Why are you afraid?

Seems like Jesus was asking them why they had allowed their terror to overcome their faith—to lessen their commitment to journeying to the other side. And Jesus commanded:

Peace! Be Still!

This kind of peace was aggressive.
The disciples took notice. They were in awe. Jesus spoke peace to terror; love to hate; mercy to judgement; friendship to isolation; healing to sickness; forgiveness to resentment; justice to injustice.

And so they kept going in their boat…to the other side, well aware of the dangers ahead and that things would not be comfortable or perfectly ordered, or even completely safe.

During the storms, when we wonder where God is, how do we respond?

My colleague, the Rev. Waltrina Middleton, United Church of Christ National Minister for Youth Advocacy and Leadership, wrote this on Thursday:

waltrina.jpegWith deep sorrow, I write to share that my beloved first cousin was among the nine fatalities. Her death was confirmed this morning, and the unspeakable grief of this loss has knocked me and my family off-kilter.

Please keep my family, Mother Emanuel congregation and all those impacted by this rampant culture of violence in the center of your prayers.

Let us come together for such a time as this to the sacred clearing—no matter our faith or practice—and be of one accord in the spirit of love, hope, and healing to seek justice and peace for these and other victims of hatred and violence.

Let us put our faith to action and be more than empty drums that have long lost their melodies or arrangements. Let us remove our instruments from the poplar trees and call the people, the public officials, and, yes, the church to action to address the festering sores of racism, classism and militarism—as they intersect in this culture of violence. How can we begin to eradicate this evil without acknowledging the realities of racialized policing, hate crimes, and the disproportionate acts of violence against Black and Brown bodies?

Alas, it is morning and tear-filled dewdrops fall fresh upon my face, with eyes watching God and a soulful lament. Our hearts are troubled, but our faith remains steadfast, trusting and believing in the reconciling power of God for the brokenhearted and the oppressed.

Yours in faith and justice,
Waltrina

She has chosen to cry out to God, but she has also chosen to keep on going to the other side.

How about the rest of the families who lost loved ones on Wednesday night?
Have you seen the video from the courthouse?
As the terrorist thug who took so many lives stood there, grieving family members expressed their sorrow. But then they verbally told him:

We forgive you.

I don’t know if I would have been capable of such a thing during such a storm.
But even as they cried out, they forgave.

Peace be still!

The miracle is in the justice and love work that people still do while they’re in the storm or down in the depths.

I have no doubt that Mother Emanuel AME Church will continue to be the miracle it has always been, just like Mother Bethel AME in Philly—testifying to a counter-narrative. No doubt that they will testify to the Spirit working its own history of justice, of peace, of reconciliation for American people who have been ostracized, marginalized, and treated as imposters.

We are, and should be appalled by this hate crime. We should mourn with those who mourn and cry out. But as we have been shown by those directly affected by this tragedy, we must also stay in the boat and keep going to the other side. We cannot allow fear to paralyze us or to make us apathetic about things like gun violence and racism.

In short, saying nice words isn’t enough.
We have to act.
We have to make changes TODAY.

When storms like this occur, we are meant to join together with others. We are meant to cooperate, support, stand with, work for justice, replace hate with love, fear with faith, and we are meant to make peace ourselves.

Jesus woke up and expected the disciples to understand that this was their responsibility. They didn’t get it until Jesus himself spoke peace to the storms.

We should all keep in mind that Mark’s Gospel was written to assure people that God was present with them in their sufferings. And it should come as no surprise that this story in a boat follows the mustard seed parable. It’s emphasizing, once again, the freeness of God’s presence, the unlimited, uncontrolled Spirit in the world. And it’s focusing on us–on humans, and how we are afraid of this freeness and this uncontrollable Spirit. We are afraid to let go of control. We are afraid of change.
And sadly, if we grip tightly to that fear, we become obsessed with keeping all that we are afraid to lose—whether status, control, money, power, privilege, etc. We can even go so far as to commit acts of violence against others.

What is racism? Fear. What are acts of terrorism? Cowardly acts.

In Mark’s boat story, faith is letting go of fear–letting go of the belief that everyone in the world is out to get us and so we better control certain people and things in order to survive. Faith is about letting go of this.

And so, as we hear the cries of all those who mourn this tragedy, we must sit and stand with them and join them in their cries. But then, we must act. We must let go of any fears that keep us from fighting against prejudice, and gun violence, and racism and stop making excuses. We must stand up in the boat and say:

ENOUGH! PEACE BE STILL!

We must be the peace we so often hope for and talk about, in spite of the storms.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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