On Wednesday, June 17, 2015 we witnessed something remarkable.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church welcomed a young white man to sit in their pews and pray with them.
Dylann Roof certainly wasn’t the first white person to visit this historically black church, but their well-documented history reminds us why an unwelcoming spirit might have been a reasonable response when he walked through their doors.
Every Reason Not To Love
Emanuel was born out of a group of freed slaves who began worshipping together in 1791 while many of their wives and children remained the “property” of free white owners.
One hundred and forty members from this church were arrested and whipped by white authorities in 1818.
After a planned revolt by some of the slaves in 1822, white people publicly hanged 37 black slaves, including Emanuel’s founder.
The congregation’s building, which was erected with their own hands, was burned by an angry white mob in that same year.
White people had outlawed its services and the church was forced to worship in secret beginning in 1834.
In 1868, one of their former pastors, Benjamin Randolph, was shot in broad daylight by three white men.
Their church is in a state that flies a Confederate flag and has roads named after white generals who fought to keep them from freely driving to church on those roads.
Over the years they worshipped in a city where whites told them to use “colored” toilets and eat at other tables because “your kind isn’t welcomed here.”
Those memories could have clouded the air when Dylann Roof walked through their storied doors.
But instead of cold shoulders, he was offered a warm seat on a pew to pray.
History would have screamed not to let him in that night. Don’t let him close. He doesn’t deserve your love. He’s only going to hurt you.
Evil In The Face Of Grace
During the hour they sat with their would be killer, the church members shared songs and prayers and words of welcome.
But then evil showed its fangs.
Murderous, racist, grace-hating evil made fresh blood flow from old wounds.
Grace had smiled and evil struck it down.
When their killer walked out their doors, Emanuel AME was left with nine new reasons to hate the people who have hurt them.
Nine more funerals.
Nine more empty seats at the dinner table.
Nine more names forever etched into this church’s grueling history.
Left behind are widows and orphans and weeping family members with new reasons to withhold grace.
But that is not what they have done.
Instead, they have once again extended grace in the face of evil.
Grace In The Face Of Evil
At Roof’s bond hearing family members showed Dylann the same grace he saw when he sat down to kill their loved ones.
From broken hearts they spoke words that have stunned many:
“I forgive you…you took something very precious away from me…I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you…you hurt me and you hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you and I forgive you.” – the daughter of Ethel Lee Nance
“I forgive you and our family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity and repent. Confess. And give your life to the One who matters most, Christ, so he can change it…He can change it.” – Anthony Thompson
“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate…everyone’s plea for your soul…is proof that they lived in love and that their legacy will live in love…and so hate will not win…” – Alana Simmons (granddaughter of Daniel Simmons)
Those were not empty words from thoughtless lips.
The hymns they sang outside the courtroom afterwards were not the delirious songs of reeling family members.
What we witnessed is grace. The supernatural grace that flows from a spring that abides in the heart of God’s people.
The slain members of Emanuel AME welcomed Dylann Roof into their midst because Christ had first invited them (1 John 4:19-20).
They pressed past the temptation to say “your kind isn’t welcome here” and offered him a seat because Jesus had first given them a seat at His table.
And now, their family members have done the same. They have offered forgiveness because Christ has forgiven them (Ephesians 4:32).
On Sunday, June 21, 2015 the wounded but resilient Emanuel AME church assembled once again. The pews were filled with members and visitors from every color. As they walked through those doors they carried the strange mix of being heavy yet hopeful; afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).
The building that was filled with gun smoke on Wednesday was filled with joyful songs on Sunday.
The room that was stained with blood on Wednesday was saturated with praise on Sunday.
The place that was divided by hate on Wednesday was hand in hand in love on Sunday.
As they held each other up and sang hymns and proclaimed promises from God’s Word, the world witnessed the arresting reality that when evil and grace collide—grace wins. When hate strikes down love—it rises again. When Christians are separated from life through death—they are not separated from the love of God (Romans 8:28-39).
Why is this so? Because Emanuel’s strength finds its source in Jesus who was struck down by sinful hate, yet rose again to be the Savior and sustainer of God’s people (Psalm 54:4; Acts 2:22-24; Romans 5:8; 1 Peter 3:18).
What the world witnessed on Sunday was the resilience of a church who has not, will not, cannot, be killed.
Do they weep? Yes. Do they grieve? Yes. Will they ever be the same? No. But have they given up? No.
Because Emanuel AME has a Savior who lives forever to give them grace in the face of evil (Hebrews 4:14-16, 7:24-25). Jesus has promised He would do this, and Jesus always keeps His promises.
The scene from that Sunday took my mind to a scene in the book of Revelation where we see people from every tribe tongue and nation, standing together to praise the Lamb who was slain.
Revelation 7:9–17 “…I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!…they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Among those in that future heavenly scene are the members of Emanuel who have been beaten and mocked and lynched and gunned down, including the nine who fell on Wednesday. It is this heavenly picture that has sustained so many of God’s people over the years, and it is what sustains them even now.
Until Grace is All We Know
One day, grace is all we will know. There will be no more racism or evil or hate or murder or division. All those things will be cast in to the lake of fire with Satan and those who followed him. But that day is not yet.
Between now and then, we live here, in a world stained with sin. We walk through doors with stained histories of both evil and grace. Living in this tension is not easy for any of us, nor is it equal for all of us. Many in this life, including our black brothers and sisters from Emanuel and other communities like it, have unique challenges to face as they journey toward that heavenly day.
As a white man, I have so many questions for the people in Charleston. I want to know how the grace of God has sustained them for so long and through so much? I want to hear how are they helping each other avoid despair and revenge? I want to hear how they have leaned upon Jesus and how they have seen Him sustain them.
But I know I cannot just make it about what “I want” to hear. So I hope I can learn whatever it is my black brothers and sisters would want to share. I can’t do that in South Carolina, but I can strive to do that at home.
For people like me, it is easy to see events on the news, and become a spectator who says, “that man’s racist hate is so evil” and “their response is so gracious.”
But we can’t do that. Change in our church or our country or our hearts won’t happen by distant observing.
My prayer and cautious encouragement is for us to be intentional to lovingly and humbly learn from those God has placed around us. We grow when we follow the example of Christ and enter into each other’s worlds. We need to listen to each other and learn from each other.
Not all people will experience life in the same way, but Gospel-inspired conversations are the pathway to true change. Be slow to make assumptions about how others experience life, and even slower to assume no racism abides in your heart. I am still learning how to do this, and you can read about my journey here.
We can learn much about this by following the example we’ve seen from Emanuel AMC. The more we do what happened on Sunday, the more we’ll grow and avoid things like what happened on Wednesday. I don’t say that to be overly simplistic, but I do believe that racism dies when people come together at the feet of Jesus who died to “break down the dividing wall of hostility” that separates us (Ephesians 2:14).
I pray that we will follow the Christ-like path of grace. It is the way forward, because when grace and evil collide—grace wins.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.