(RNS) I only signed up for this trip because it had vacation and getaway all over it.
Pastoring is an exhaustive undertaking and you can burn out quickly. So I jumped at the opportunity for a seat on the bus offered through New York Theological Seminary’s 10th anniversary “Going Home: Civil Rights & Southern Religion Journey.”
But what initially felt like the early moments of a slumber party quickly turned somber. This would be a serious trip, trekking through the “holy grounds” of slavery, Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, the organizers said at an orientation session.
The excursion officially began with a talk by the Rev. Eleanor Moody Shepherd, dean of students, and an acquaintance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Every eye was fixated on every word and the room was so quiet as she spoke it felt like we were all holding our breath.
I smiled internally and thought: “The Lord, is at it again.” I can almost hear my grandma say, “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” Here my goal was relaxation but it was replaced by a study in what one speaker called “black gold.”
The “journey home” proceeded toward what would be the heart of the trip: Charleston, S.C., and Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of the 2015 mass shooting that took the lives of nine people. Members told us that every Sunday morning was a return to the scene of a crime.
Our organizer Wanda Lundy began to ask trip participants: “What will be our offering to Mother Emanuel?”
My first reaction was to search my wallet and to scrape up loose change, but that was not her intention. She wanted us to search our hearts for an offering that met God’s approval.
Lundy stated we were not there to “gawk” over the crime scene but approach the sacred edifice as if it was holy ground. We needed to remember that Mother Emanuel had suffered unimaginable loss and therefore every community of faith had also suffered.
What touched many of us was the story of the foundational event on which the glorious history of Mother Emanuel was built (excluding the recent terrorism).
Legend has it, Morris Brown attempted to participate in a prayer study that was held in a Methodist church in Charleston, and he along with other black worshippers were told that they could not remain in the sanctuary.
Brown pleaded with the white Christians to stay and pray to a merciful Lord.
But the hatred was so intense that the white Southern Christians were opposed to allowing the Negro children of God to join in the divine plea.
The Scriptures state, “that where two or more are gathered I am in the midst.”
So, the Lord was in their midst as the black “beggars looking for bread from on high” were evicted from the Lord’s house. And the Lord was present, when a shooter fired 77 rounds of ammunition in the basement of Mother Emanuel.
Think of the irony: The believers of Mother Emanuel welcomed the terrorist. Instead of accepting the open hand of love, the terrorist used his hands to express the hatred in his heart. Just like 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church, in “Bombingham” Ala., terrorism was committed against people of color gathered in the house of the Lord.
Our offering was love. We brought love from New York Theological Seminary and a quote from King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
(Willie J. Keaton Jr. is a pastor of Claremont Lafayette United Presbyterian Church and president of Circle of Inspiration, a New Jersey ministry addressing mass incarceration and helping ex-convicts re-enter society)