When I first read that a “Pastor Pinckney” had died in the killing spree at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, I ran immediately for the guest book at our ministry house on Capitol Hill. I knew that several months before we had hosted an African-American minister from the south by the same name—even with its peculiar spelling. The thought that it may have been him sickened me that much more.
But, it wasn’t the pastor I had hosted that had been killed. I found Pastor “Glenn Pinckney” alive and well in Hickory, North Carolina. I told him on the phone I was concerned the slain pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, may have been his relation. “Not exactly,” the pastor said. He explained the name Pinckney, “spelled with the c, goes back to a common plantation owner. It was customary in the south for freed slaves to assume the names of their former owners, so, while the two Pinckneys were not related by blood, they did share in a common and ugly historical line.
The Pastor Pinckney I talked to in Hickory does happen to have a son that is a pastor in Charleston. In fact, Charleston is the family’s original home. At the behest of his father, the son, Reverend Philip Pinckney, would end up hosting Rev. Pat Mahoney and me on a whirlwind visit to his stricken community, but what we found there was nothing less than a fountain of Christ-like love and life-giving hope. In the midst of their suffering, the people of Charleston, particularly those related to Emanuel AME Church, where the tragedy took place, were having nothing short of a love fest in the street.
When we got there, clusters of black, white, and brown, young and old, including passers by, were clustered together, singing hymns, raising their hands in praise, and praying loudly and in turn. If the perpetrator of that heinous act had intended to wipe out a center of the black community in Charleston, he ended up to doing the opposite. The next morning, when Rev. Pinckney, Rev. Mahoney, and I, led a special prayer service in front of the church, I thanked the people of Beautiful Mother Emanuel for teaching us all how to live out the Gospel. The church that one man wanted to destroy has now become a life-giving model to the whole world.
The downside to Charleston is, of course, the enormity of pain and loss experienced by the loved ones of those that died. They will carry that agony for the rest of their earthly lives. But there is something else lamentable for all of us in the Charleston calamity; it is the grotesque reminder that racial hatred has not yet disappeared from the American fabric. This deep, devilish, and dangerous flaw that dates to before the very inception of our country—and was even codified into our constitution at the nation’s founding—persists to this day. It lingers in the recesses of America’s psyche and continues to drive so much injury, death, anxiety, and fear for people of all races.
The voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. played in the background of all of my formative years. I can still hear the fuzzy transmission of his eloquent voice thundering his dream for America:
. . . that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
My prayer on Calhoun Street in front of Mother Emanuel, arm-in-arm with black and white church leaders, was that we could all live out this dream, in obedience to a Gospel in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but we are all one in Jesus Christ.”
Unwittingly, maliciously, murderously, one tortured young man may have helped this Gospel dream to come a little closer to reality. Joseph said to the brothers that sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20) So the family members of the #EmanuelNine are teaching us by the example of love, forgiveness, and prayers toward the killer of their loved ones.
Thank you brothers and sisters of #EmanuelAME ; Thank you brothers and sisters throughout #Charleston ; Thank you dear departed Pastor Pinckney and all those who helped shape a Christian community that can help eradicate a persistent disease in the American body politic.
Thank you, Lord, for all we can learn form the #EmanuelNine .
Rev. Rob Schenck, D.Min., is an evangelical minister to top-level government officials in Washington, DC, president of the National Clergy Council, and chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance. Dr. Schenck is the subject of the newly released documentary, Armor of Light, directed by Abigail Disney, and focusing on Christians and the problem of gun violence in America.