Journal from Charleston: North Georgia United Methodists Reflect on Funeral of Rev. Pickney
A number of North Georgia United Methodists traveled to Charleston, SC, as a ministry of presence on Friday, June 26, 2015, the day of the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pickney. Rev. Pickney was one of nine tragically killed at a prayer meeting at Emanuel AME, the church where he served as pastor.
Jonathan Rikard Brown and Rev. Brian Tilllman, who suggested that a delegation from the North Georgia Conference make the trip, were among the first to commit to attending. Rev. Carol Snype Crawford and Rev. Jaqui Rose Tucker would bring friends and church members representing North Georgia. Rev. Scott Parrish, our conference mission specialist, would attend. Patrick Faulhaber, youth ministry director at Loganville First UMC, who was with the church youth on a mission team in the Charleston area, would extend their trip by a day to participate as part of the delegation from North Georgia. Rev. Scott Pickering, a doctor of ministry classmate of Rev. Pinckney, would be present for the service.
Below are brief excerpts from written reflections of a few of those who traveled from the North Georgia Conference to Charleston. Photos are by Rev. Scott Pickering.
From Rev. Scott Parrish
I left Augusta midday on Thursday, June 25, to attend a visitation for Rev. Pinckney at the St. John AME church near Ridgeland, South Carolina. This wake occurred after Rev. Pinckney was lying in state at the capitol on Wednesday and was for his family and friends in his home area of Jasper County. It’s all country back roads from Augusta, and offered good time of reflection.
The visitation was scheduled to be from 11AM-4PM, and my intent was to arrive toward the end of the time, and to share some of the Action Ministry church signs that had been turned into prayers and blessings as North Georgia Annual Conference delegates and participants at a joint UMC/AME community prayer service at St. Luke UMC in Augusta had written on the back of the signs. I was somewhat delayed due to driving in a storm for an hour on two lane roads, but still managed to arrive at 3:45. Either due to the storms which were just moving into that area, or that they had gotten word that a crowd was already gathering in Charleston at Mother Emanuel, the funeral home concluded the visitation at 3:30.
The good in this was that I was able to spend a few minutes with the pastor of St. John AME, and a couple of the area AME pastors, as they were gathered in that office. A crowd was still outside of the church, and having conclude this visitation, they were talking about their part of the home going service on Friday.
I asked just outside the church where I might find the pastor. No one quite knew what to think of me or my request at first, but I quickly added who I was and who I represented and that immediately changed the conversation. I shared with the laity I asked directions of how the news of Wednesday night changed our North Georgia Annual Conference and that we were brokenhearted and wanted to share some small token of love and support. Folk from that area know Augusta, so they’d float a name or two to see if I knew their friend. Faces softened, I was recognized as distant family, and a shared sensibility of church, and community, and the possibility of the Kingdom of God being present seemed potential.
One of the women of the church took me through the small sanctuary and in the back corner she knocked on the door of the pastor’s office. I had a large handful of the bright yellow church signs marked up with prayers. In that small office were three men with the pastor. They didn’t have AC on, so the side door out the office to a small parking lot was opened, which meant no barrier between the environment and emotion outside the church from inside.
The pastors were sweaty, tired, and they had that look any clergy know first hand of how one feels after a big, emotional event when you know you just have a short time for the adrenaline to recharge for the next leg of the marathon.
I briefly shared who I was, who I represented, and our story of annual conference. They seemed to perk up a little as I told them we were heartbroken, yet standing with them, both in the immediate days ahead and in the weeks and months to follow. I told them the events in Charleston had changed the mood and focus of annual conference for me and for many. Being Methodist clergy they understood what this meant. I told them that I was headed to Mother Emanuel for the visitation that night and to meet up with our North Georgia delegation for the service on Friday. I said they’d had the attention and prayers of our bishop and conference and that we would continue that focus. I handed over a stack of church signs turned into prayers that took two hands to hold. Their gratitude was overflowing, not in tears, but in appreciation for the Methodist family and Church that might even touch and support in Tillman, S.C. One of the pastors asked if he could have more of the prayers and that he would share that with other churches in their district and I gladly shared more with those weary pastors.
I was one of the last “outsiders” to leave the St. John church, and got into my car just before the storm unleashed strong wind and rain on that location. I continued on through the Low Country to Charleston and pushed on to Mother Emanuel Church as the radio was reporting a huge crowd was already in line for the visitation.
Saying Goodbye to a Friend and Colleague
From Rev. Scott Pickering
The Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, known by most friends as Clem, was enrolled in Wesley Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry degree program under the tract of Church Leadership Excellence. The majority of course work had to take place during four two-week intensives. While it may seem that a relationship of any lasting value is difficult to form within a group who meets over a three-year period for only eight weeks, our group was intentional in spending time with one another in class and afterwards at varying restaurants in D.C.
Clem was instrumental in helping form the bonds between members in our group. He was a person gifted in skills that brought people together not only in the state house but also in the church. Facing the two topics never to be discussed among friends, politics and religion, Clem was willing to engage in deep conversation with an open-mind any topic that surfaced. In the end, each person may still hold his or her original opinion. The difference was the depth in a personal relationship that strengthens the bonds of friendship.
Occasionally, professors would encourage the group to join in song as a way of focusing our attention on the next topic. Clem had a deep and rich voice that always amazed the first-time listener. Gospel songs came alive with stories of struggle ending with victory and hallelujahs.
Where jealously may have risen over his powerful and strong voice, it could not be raised against his natural gifts of leadership. Clem and I would often discuss the similarities between a politician and a member of the clergy. We reached some agreement in acknowledging that the difference between the two had to be in the authenticity of the leader. Political tricks may benefit the clergy in the short-term, but they would not sustain one over the long haul. It was difficult to be jealous of Clem and his accomplishments because he was as authentic as any person could be. I could without difficulty envision him one day becoming a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, governor of the state of South Carolina, or succeeding in both achievements.
Paying my last respects to Clem was a necessity and not an option, especially taking in the horrible event that claimed him and eight others. Arriving on the day before his funeral, I spent the majority of the time viewing the countless offering of flowers placed in front of the church and reading notes of encouragement left on sheets laid on the pavement or written on the bark of the small trees along the sidewalk. I took notice of the Charleston Security’s vehicles parked in the church parking lot closed off from the public. One could witness servicemen attaching and adjusting cameras, which may have prevented the horrible murders.
After several visits to the church office, I was told that I could return at 4 pm to secure my opportunity of viewing a dear friend one last time. Numerous law officials and canines searched the building before we were allowed to enter, and a large corps of officers secured and monitored the building throughout the wake. Between the hours of 4 pm and 6 pm, I sat beside a growing number of church members in the very room where the murders took place. Conscience of the fact that I was the only white male among the group of sufferers, I could only hope that the trust between us would triumph over the fears stirred by another white male half my age. Though my stomach made me nauseous, I could not simply escape from a reality that I wished had never occurred. In the sharing of tales, bonds of friendship were sealed as God continued his healing touch to a much larger community.
After exiting the historic “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a reporter approached me with some questions. I told her that this situation was unfamiliar to me. On many levels, I have shared in great loss and struggle. Friends, family members, and even strangers have at some point in my life offered words of sympathy after a great loss. In each of those occasions, I was able to assure the comforter that everything would be okay. Ten days after this senseless slaughter of brothers and sisters of faith, I still struggle to say everything will be okay. Huge signs of support hanging off the sides of buildings, phrases like “Charleston Strong,” and “free hugs” passed out with free water all contribute to our healing; however, the most powerful actions are the shared prayers for comfort, strength, and hope.
The last question asked of me was, “What are your thoughts about this large crowd gathering outside of this church?” Here’s my response: “I think this just shows that we can’t face our fears, our turmoil, by ourselves - we need not only God, but one another. The fear of tomorrow is easier to face when you know you aren’t facing it alone.”
From Rev. Carol Snype Crawford
We call my home town the Holy City because of the many church steeples so visible in its skyline. When the unspeakable occurred, the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME, one of its prominent holy places of worship, it left me reeling.
It seemed as if there was a hole in my heart, a yearning that could only be filled by my being present in the place of my birth and upbringing. I mourned our loss deeply and went to Charleston to give my presence in solidarity with my hometown community family.
I waited in line for hours in sweltering heat, hoping to gain admittance to the TD Arena for Rev. Pinkney’s celebration of life service. I was pressed on every side by a mass of humanity, folks of many different races, ages, and faith traditions in lines stretching as far back as I could see. Out of somewhere emerged the strains of songs of faith. All around me folks stopped talking and started singing about God’s grace.
In those moments there were no divisions of race, faith, gender or socio-economic status among us. It felt like we no longer were strangers, but the family of God sharing holy moments in the holy city. I pray this visual of our common humanity was not temporary sentiment but a vision of how we will find our way forward to truly embody the grace-filled witness of Emanuel AME Church and the families of those whose earthly lives ended on June 17, 2015 in that holy place, in the holy city.
Dreams and Nightmares
From Rev. Brian A. Tillman
The crowds outside of the TD Arena on Friday, June 26, 2015, were enormous. There were people of diverse racial groups gathered together to remember and honor the life of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. The racial tensions in the country are extremely high. Yet, these people on this day were positive, helpful, peaceful, and courageous. I felt like I was sleepwalking into Dr. King’s dream.
I love dreaming of a better tomorrow. It is full of all the desires of the heart and leaves no joy on the outside looking in. Yet, while I dream of a better tomorrow, I am subconsciously admitting that today may be a nightmare. I never wanted to be in Charleston because of the killing of 9 people in a church because of their black skin. I was sleepwalking and enduring the war in my mind between a dream and a nightmare.
I saw the nightmare when I visited the front of Mother Emmanuel AME church and realized that 9 people were viciously murdered by someone filled with hatred toward people he did not know. I saw the dream, when I realized that as I stood there as a black man, that there were white men and women there crying my same tears, feeling my same pain, and dreaming of the same future. It was like the flickering of two movies trying to play at the same time.
I saw the dream when I saw this church that was an instrument of hope for black people since 1818. It was a beacon of hope for freed slaves and current slaves. This church was home to heroes in the black community like Morris Brown and Denmark Vesey. It met in secret for 31 years while black churches was outlawed. It hosted people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Booker T. Washington. Just as I recalled these truths, the nightmare returned when I looked up and realized the church sat on a street named for John C. Calhoun who was an outspoken proponent of the institution of slavery, which he defended as a "positive good" rather than as a "necessary evil." The street was named in honor Calhoun in 1949.
I saw the dream as my wife and I rode to Charleston with Jonathan Brown with gas money given by Rev. Joy Rikard Brown. I saw the dream when we were welcomed to stay the night in the home of Rev. Kathy Priest Hudson. I saw the dream when I saw people outside of the lines passing out bottles of cold water to those inside of the lines hoping to get into the arena for the service. The water-givers were majority white and hospitable even while the seated in the over 90 degree weather. I saw the dream when the city of Charleston passed a temporary ordinance to prevent protests at funerals which prevented the hateful signs that many of us feared would be present. I saw the dream when I saw banners proclaiming peace, justice, and love hanging from buildings all over Charleston.
I pray that the church of Jesus Christ awakens from its slumber on verbal, subtle, overt, and institutional racism and brings to realization the dreams of so many like … Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, and Suzie Jackson. Dear Jesus, calm this storm. Amen.
Words Can't Describe
From Rev. Dr. Jacqui Rose-Tucker
Words could not express my emotions as I stood out front of Mother Emanuel AME Church. Knowing it could have happened to any of us. Knowing these nine paid the ultimate sacrifice. Watching the thousands that gathered for Rev. Pinkney's funeral. It was well worth the drive with my Lay Leader Larry Brock, the heat, the waiting, just to be in solidarity with our S.C. AME sisters and brothers and to talk with them while waiting. Incredible and blessed by the experience. To know that our President was expected heightened the experience. Just being there gave me a sense of comfort and hope for the Church for her future and for our future as a people and as a nation. Come Lord Jesus come!
Engaged in Mission
From Patrick Faulhaber
The mission trip was empty in comparison to Friday morning. Our youth members were scattered around the North Charleston suburbs offering small tokens of Christ's love to a community agencies who were often overwhelmed with volunteers. Throughout the week my most common complaint was that they felt unhelpful and bored.
Friday morning was significantly different. We woke up hours earlier than normal, stood in line for 4 hours and still were unable to attend the funeral for Rev. Pickney. While I had heard complaints of boredom all week, I heard none on Friday. The teenagers from Loganville First UMC were engaged in conversations with neighbors in line asking questions about racial realities, mourning habits, discrimination, among other odd topics like the meaning of drumming circles.
The day was an important one for our group. I brought the youth group to Rev. Pickney's funeral for several reasons:
From Sierra, Loganville First UMC Youth
- First I thought it was important that they get a chance to participate in a historical moment.
- I also wanted the youth to be engaged in a conversation about race.
- I also wanted to push the youth to experience something very different from their daily lives
- Finally, and most importantly, I wanted to show the teenagers that you can offer a tangible sign of hope and solidarity, even when you feel helpless in the world. There is never a moment when you can't do anything. Even if the only option is to show up and be sad, that is something. I hope the youth learn that they can always do something to combat injustice, discrimination, and hate.
Since I had never attended anything like this, I had no clue what to expect. When our youth group arrived, the line was almost already three blocks long at a minimum. As the morning progressed, the line grew longer and the temperature rose. It was very hot, crowded, and not the most ideal place to be on a beautiful morning in Charleston, which is why it was so eye opening for me. All of the people waiting to attend the funeral could have been doing other things that morning, but God decided to bring them together and unite everyone to support the town. It was amazing to see how many people wanted to give their time to show their love and compassion to the people affected by the tragedy. Being surrounded by an atmosphere with so many diverse individuals who were there for the same cause was truly a great thing to experience.