Wednesday, June 17th, 2015, another seemingly typical day in my young adult twenty years of life. At this point in time I don’t have that much on my plate to stress about; I’m young, healthy, blessed with the opportunity to attend one of the best universities in the country, blessed with a job that I love, and I feel safe. The day seems to fluctuate from moments of rapid activity to the seemingly eternal five minute “what-is-life-right-now?” reflections. Seconds turned into minutes, minutes turned into moments, moments turned into momentum and before I know it the day comes to an end. My morning and early afternoon with the kids at Trevitt Elementary seemed to fade away as quickly as it faded in. Helping to clean the church before bible study and bible study itself were like grains through the hourglass. Day turned into night, night turned into the reflection of the day, and my body shut down to prepare myself for the next day.
I woke up that Thursday morning with a news alert on my phone about the Charleston, South Carolina church shootings: Nine Dead in Church Shooting. This can’t be real. No. No this isn’t real. I frantically rushed downstairs to turn on the news. Headlines of the church shooting that had occurred flooded every news outlet. Dylann Roof, a twenty one year old white man, walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina, sat in on their Wednesday night bible study, and murdered nine people with the sole intention to “kill black people.” To say a wave of emotions washed over me in that moment would be an understatement. I didn’t know what to feel. To be completely honest I didn’t feel anything for a few hours. With tragedies like these there are two seemingly vague emotions that a typical human being is supposed to feel; sadness and/or anger. Reactions and emotions varied in degree across the nation but a general sense of unbelief clouded the American public. How could this happen? How could such a terrorist act driven by racism and hate occur on American soil, in 2015, and in a church? No, not America! Not us! This is unbelievable! As sickening and as sad as it is to admit, the death of nine innocent African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina is very much so believable. This is a despairing reality that the American public has forgotten and is far too familiar. As time has taught us there is a history of terrorism on black churches in America. As the New York Times put it in a recent article following the Emanuel A.M.E. church shootings; “The killing of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., is among a long list of attacks targeting predominantly black churches in the United States.”
Springfield, Massachusetts (2008) – Macedonia Church of God in Christ: The predominantly black church, which was under construction, was set on fire shortly after the election of President Obama. Of the three white men charged, two pleaded guilty and a third was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Knoxville, Tennesse (1996) – Inner City Baptist Church: A fire destroyed the sanctuary of the church and racial slurs were painted on the walls. Molotov cocktails, cans of kerosene and gunpowder were discovered in the rubble. Louisiana (1996)- Four Churches: A group of churches within a six-mile radius — Cypress Grove Baptist, St. Paul’s Free Baptist, and Thomas Chapel Benevolent Society in East Baton Rouge as well as Sweet Home Baptist in Baker — were set on fire on the anniversary of the sit-in in Greensboro, N.C. Manning, South Carolina (1995) – Macedonia Baptist Church: Four former members of the Ku Klux Klan set fire to the church, one of several burned by arsonists in the mid-1990s. A fire was set the day before at the Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Greeleyville, S.C. A jury believed the Klan’s rhetoric motivated the men to set the fire. The fire was one of dozens at predominantly black churches across the South that were investigated as arson. Longdale, Mississippi (1964) – Mount Zion A.M.E. Church: The Ku Klux Klan beat parishioners as they were leaving a church meeting. The Klan’s intended target was a civil rights activist, Michael Schwerner, who was not there. The wood-framed church, a historic safe haven for slaves, was burned down. On June 21, Mr. Schwerner and two other civil rights workers drove to visit the burned church. Afterward, they were pulled over, arrested and jailed. After their release, they were beaten and killed. Birmingham, Alabama (1963) – 16th Street Church: The Ku Klux Klan set off a bomb under the steps of the church, killing four young girls and injuring more than 20 other members of the church. The 16th Street Baptist Church served as a civil rights meeting place in the 1960s and a center for the African-American community in Birmingham. The list goes on. Some stories never covered, some churches attacked numerous times over the course of their history. This is a part of our history as a nation. On Wednesday night June 17th, 2015, the attack on the Emanuel A.M.E. church became a part of American History.
As a Christian, a man of faith, a black man, and a human being, I was hurt. Like the family members did in the few days following the murders, I knew I had to forgive. I knew that personally I couldn’t let the poison of hate contaminate my heart. I knew that my heart had to be in line with the scripture that calls me to “love my enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That night my family and I gathered around the living room to pray for the victims of shootings, the family members or loved ones, our nation as a whole, and Dylann Roof himself. Churches around the nation and around the world went on bended knees to cry out for peace in our nation and for yet another moment in history, a nation joined together in solidarity. Then as routine as it is life went on. As the wounds of our nation were once again exposed, we continued to live on without falter. We went back to our 9-5’s, we went back to our families, our neighborhood, and our worlds; our reality. My reality became another day with the Department of Social Change at The Ohio State University. My reality became another day at Trevitt Elementary on the east side of Columbus with my kids. My reality became another day combating systemic oppressions with areas of focus in education, mass incarceration, community development, design in urban and rural communities, and health and wellness. Just a week or so before the church shootings the topics of racism, oppression, depression, bullying, and suicide, were brought to my attention by some of the students that attend the summer program that our department runs. In the days that came afterwards I battled with continuing discussing these subjects with the kids wondering if I was even really making a difference. As news of Charleston plagued our television screens and our social media timelines, I realized that everything that these kids brought up were completely relevant and sadly remain completely relevant to life in America.
As part of the The Ohio State University’s mission, the Department of Social Change exists to advance the well-being of the people of Ohio and the global community through the creation and dissemination of knowledge. With my own role in the department I understand that this mission involves everything that I do as an employee. I understand that my conversations with kids that battle prejudice and systemic racism are important. I understand informing kids about the realities of heavy handed concepts like racism is important. I understand that reading a book to a third grader and stressing the importance of the desire for books and reading are vital to the success of their future. I understand that my consistency in a young black boy’s life, who may not have the luxury of having a father or a father figure and whose own father may have been ripped away from him by the severe system of mass incarceration, adds progress to the well-being of his life. I understand that I am a part of hope at The Department of Social Change.
Hope: the expectancy and the desire for something to happen or change. With events like Charleston, South Carolina it’s easy to lose hope in anything changing. It’s easy to sit here in Columbus, Ohio and think that what I do doesn’t make any difference in Charleston. It’s easy to sit idle and numb as the systems of this world take jabs at our guts and carve our hearts. Hope seems nearly inappropriate in the face of the open lacerations of a nation, but hope is the only appropriate and just reaction to an open wound. While my own personal hope is not in the systems of this world or man, I understand that I, as one man, make a difference. And isn’t that what we all desire, change? Real tangible change that we can see but if we don’t see we still hope for. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” I know that there is so much to be done. I know that there is so much to continue to hope for, and continue we will. Continue we will.