I think of my monthly column as musings on things that are light, perhaps even humorous. Love shines through the simple moments of humanity, when we are willing to gaze into them with an eye for the divine.
But this month, I don't feel like telling a story or pondering an experience. I've got nothing. That's because my heart hurts.
Last Wednesday night, a young man visited a prayer meeting in Charleston, at a sister congregation in the Methodist family I am a part of. They welcomed him into their midst, and he sat with them for an hour. Then he pulled out a gun and opened fire, killing nine of them including the pastor. This is more than tragic. This is horror.
My heart aches that we live in a world of such brokenness. There is so much hate. There's even hate in the church. It's not limited to the "us and them" distinctions we create, for Muslims are killing Muslims, Christians are killing Christians, and believers are killing believers. Violence of every kind and description goes on and on.
We may feel Arab is a "city on a hill", insulated from this kind of thing. But we're not. We are one human family. It breaks my heart, and I know it breaks the heart of God.
It is sad that we have to peer into the darkness of an event like this to see that there are deep racial wounds that just don't want to heal. But we pretend they don't exist. I don't want to get into political arguments, I'm just feeling the rawness of the truth.
These nine people were shot in a church, when attending a prayer meeting. This is not a "tragedy," like a flood or a tornado. This is hate. We may be tempted to dismiss it as one more guy who lost his mind. But in this case, there is no way not to see this as violence motivated by racial hostility. His own manifesto is the proof.
Please don't just politicize this. Don't dismiss it as if there is no hate or racism in our country. It's like the Nazi Party that's still active underground in Germany. There is a residual strain of hate, hidden beneath the surface. It's real and it's time to stop pretending it's not there.
I am as Southern as you can get. I love grits. I have never lived north of the Alabama state line, and neither did my parents or grandparents (okay, one of them grew up in south Tennessee). I am a descendant of Confederate soldiers as well as Revolutionary patriots, and I know what it means to honor our heritage. But this kind of violence degrades it.
I don't pretend to have a simple solution, but I do believe that the gospel transforms this world. That's why I believe in a life of worship, because vague familiarity with a few superficial niceties and tidy doctrines doesn't make sense of why these things keep happening.
We live in a world that builds layers of hostility. But when we live the life of the church and live it well, Christ comes to peel the layers away, redeeming us and showing us the face of God, even in the face of evil. For those of us who carry the banner of Christian, the good book says the one who prayed "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" was lifted up from the earth so that the world might be drawn to him. Well, we're not there yet.
But here's the hope. Love always wins. Christians are called that because we are called to be "little Christs." That means we love, and we forgive, and we bring peace in places of hate, and we bring calm in every storm, and we tear down what Paul calls the dividing walls of hostility. We don't do this because we think it "works," or because we think it "wins." It's not a strategy. It's because this is who we are. And love is what God is.
The people of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church know this. Did you read about the relatives of the people slain who spoke to the alleged shooter at the bond hearing? They did not speak words of anger or hostility. One by one, they offered forgiveness and prayers for his soul even as they plunged into the depths of their pain.
"I forgive you," one daughter said. "You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul."
A grandson said, "I forgive you. My family forgives you ... We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most: Christ. So that he can change it."
One mother said, "We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms," her voice trembling. "Tywanza was my hero. But as we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you. May God have mercy on you."
Wow. These are not words of people who are suddenly trying to come up with some semblance of hope in a vacuum. These are the words of people who pray and study together every week. They have embraced the love that first embraced them.
After the hearing, folks gathered outside the courtroom to sing favorite gospel hymns.
Nope, hate did not win.
Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.