by Herb Silverman
Many of us in Charleston, South Carolina began grieving on Wednesday night when we heard that a white gunman had killed nine innocent black people gathered at the historic Emanuel AME Church, three blocks from where I live. This church, with a primarily black membership, once was a secret meeting place for African-Americans who wanted to end slavery at a time when laws in Charleston banned all-black church gatherings.
My grieving turned to anger on Thursday morning when I listened to national television commentary about the slayings. A caller on C-SPAN blamed it on tolerance for homosexuality, which caused God’s wrath. Fox News spun this racially motivated crime into an attack on Christianity, and one guest suggested that pastors arm themselves during services. I also disliked hearing people on both left and right say how much worse the crime was because it happened in a church. Killing nine people is horrendous, regardless of where it happens.
On Thursday at noon, I attended a vigil at nearby Morris Brown AME Church, also a traditionally black church, where the entire community was invited to pray for peace, understanding, and healing. As an atheist I don’t pray, but I support those goals. I thought of the anti-war song “Lay Down”, by Melanie, and the line “Some came to sing, some came to pray, some came to keep the dark away.” I was there to help keep the dark away by showing support for a beleaguered African-American community.
The service by a series of African-American pastors was heartfelt and moving. During prayers I stood politely, but didn’t read aloud because I don’t have a friend in Jesus and don’t believe his blood is helping me. I only winced once, at a line from Psalm 136: “To Him that smote Egypt in their firstborn, for his mercy endureth forever.”
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