by Jim Vondracek
Six years ago, a group gathered at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, for a time of study and prayer. The congregation is AME, a traditionally African-American denomination and the two pastors were graduates of a Lutheran seminary. In a mass shooting, a hate-filled white supremacist killed nine of those attending, those we now call the Emanuel Nine.
Lutherans have added the Emanuel Nine to our annual calendar of martyrs and saints, remembering their death by marking their feast day on June 17th. On that day, the church encourages congregations and Christians to affirm their commitment to repenting of the sins of racism and white supremacy, to venerate the martyrdom of the Emanuel Nine, and to mark this day of penitence with study and prayer.
In our society, violence, white supremacy, tribalism, unhinged anger and vitriol, seem to be ascending. The racist mass murderer who shot the Emanuel Nine embraced hate groups he met online and adopted their messages of violence. As followers of Christ, we raise our voices against it, stand opposed to the mainstream which embraces evil or excuses it, and remember the Emanuel Nine.
Pastor Goede’s Sermon on the Commemoration of the Emanuel Nine, Mark 4:26-34
This is the first year in which our national church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has commemorated the Emanuel Nine as martyrs of the Church. They’re the nine people you see on the cover of your bulletin. Now, they are part of the large number of saints we remember each year in the Church. Feast days are observed on the date of the death of a saint, and these nine were all murdered together on June 17, 2015.
They were all attending a weekly Bible study at their church, Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal in Charleston, South Carolina. Mother Emanuel was well known as one of the oldest predominately Black congregations in the country. Their pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinkney, was a state senator, and many members were prominent in Charleston. The nine Bible students all knew each other and a few other regulars in attendance, but that evening, they were joined by a new, young white man. He sat down right next to the study leader, Rev. Pinkney. He was quiet at first, but spoke up a couple of times to disagree with observations about the text.
Near the end of the hour, as the group began praying, the young white man stood up, pulled a gun from a fanny pack and pointed it at 87-year-old Susie Jackson. Jackson’s nephew, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, tried to talk the gunman down. He asked him why he was attacking churchgoers. The shooter said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Sanders tried to shield his aunt, but they were both shot and killed. A couple of people survived by playing dead as the gunman kept shooting.
He left one woman alive, telling her that one person had to survive to tell the world about what he had done. But when the young man put the gun to his own head to kill himself, he found he was out of ammunition. He fled.
Jesus talks about sowing seeds today, how the kingdom of God is like the tiniest mustard seed which can grow into a huge bush. In reflecting on this shooting, a lot of Jesus’ words are illuminating. As he’s teaching the crowds, he tells another parable about how some seeds fall on rocky ground, some on fertile ground. He talks about weeds growing among the wheat, the good growing alongside the bad. All of these images help us understand this tragedy, and where God is in it.
The shooter, Dylan Roof, aged 21, grew up in a family and a church community, an ELCA congregation in fact, that tried to sow good seed with him. He did not grow up in a family where he learned to be a white supremacist. Both his father and his uncle called the police to identify him when the security footage of him entering Mother Emanuel AME was first broadcast.
Roof was someone who was self-radicalized. In other words, the seeds planted by his family and church community fell on rocky soil, and they never developed strong roots. But Roof was eager for something to grow in him, and he found it on the Internet. Roof said he became “racially aware” as a result of the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, writing that when he learned about that incident, he concluded that George Zimmerman had been in the right, and he didn’t understand the controversy about it. He said he searched for “black on White [sic] crime” on Google and found the website of
the Council of Conservative Citizens, where he read “pages upon pages” of cases involving black people murdering white people. Roof wrote that he had “never been the same since that day”. He started his own webpage, entitled “The Last Rhodesian,” as in formerly white-colonized Zimbabwe. He let the evil of white supremacy take deep root in him. He was only spotted on the highway after the shooting because a motorist took a second look at his Confederate flag bumper sticker.
Like all martyrs, the Emanuel Nine sowed seeds of their own. Despite being members of a very important, historical church, that evening they were all just friends who had gathered for their weekly Bible study. They were not expecting anything extraordinary to happen. Most of them were probably not expecting anything extraordinary to happen for the rest of their lives. They were ordinary people, ordinary Christians.
Part of their witness unfolded as they were being shot. Roof was yelling racial slurs, but they were not hurling them back. At Roof’s first court hearing just a few days after the shooting, all of the survivors from the Bible study and relatives of five of the victims spoke to Roof directly, saying that they were “praying for his soul” and forgave him. They repeated this when Roof’s family made a statement expressing their shock and grief, and their condolences to the families.
The day after the shooting, many flags, including those at the South Carolina State House, were flown at half-staff. The Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina Confederate Monument near the state house was not lowered, because South Carolina law prohibited lowering the flag without the consent of two-thirds of the state legislature. To enforce this, the flagpole lacked a pulley system, meaning the flag could not be flown at half-staff, only removed.
Once that was known, there was a huge outcry against the flag. After speeches, petitions and protests across the country, the South Carolina legislature voted not only to lower it but to remove it. On July 10, less than a month after the shooting, the Confederate flag was taken down for the last time from in front of South Carolina’s seat of government.
So, where was God in all of this? Where God always is, alongside those who suffered from this intentional, evil act. God has stayed alongside the grieving families and the church community as they have built a memorial to the nine and used their church for racial reconciliation work. God has been at work among the people of Charleston and beyond as they have wrestled with other displays of the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate soldiers and names on public buildings borrowed from Confederate heroes. God has been with those who have busy building the kingdom of God where there was previously an unchallenged culture of white supremacy.
God is with us today as we remember the Emanuel Nine and contemplate what seeds need to be scattered to build the kingdom of God in our place. Those small seeds are being thrown in many places where Lutherans are gathered this morning. The kingdom grows when these saints are remembered, and when our commemorations lead us to take steps, big and small. That’s how this mustard seed grows beyond expectation and turns into a huge bush where the birds of the air can build their nests. It’s built on many small commitments and actions, small seeds that can grow into big things.
As we prayed on Sunday, “Holy God, help us to plant the seeds of your good and powerful Word. Make our hearts good soil, prepared and fertile. Let us grow in grace.”