The Holes in the Church Floor

I can't imagine the actual shooting. Sure, we see people shooting each other constantly on one screen or another, but this was a church. The Ministers would have been sitting around, perhaps in the sanctuary, and discussing, what I don't know because I've never attended a bible study session, but it could have been Matthew 5:44…"You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

Maybe when they saw the hyped-up youth in the shirt that displayed symbols of racist regimes, they thought it an opportunity to practice this gospel. I imagine them sitting in the sanctuary and motioning him forward. Come on in, son. I don't know if anyone actually said this, but I imagine it so. The church itself is a sanctuary and a symbol, too, just like the First African Baptist in Savannah, where Preacher Little welcomed a few visitors, including me, to join the congregation and invited us to participate in the Sunday service.

I attended out of curiosity. Having been disappointed by the commercialism that seemed to accompany the performances of the Harlem Gospel Choir -- at least where I saw them, in Quebec City's towering St. Roch Church-- I was looking for authenticity in Savannah. Like Mother Emmanuel, First African Baptist is an historic African-American church. It too has holes in the floor that aided the breathing of runaway slaves who hid out there, a stop on the underground railway. And the music was fine. Those voices! Most impressive, though, was the pastoral spirit I sensed in the preacher. I doubt he knew personally all the members of the congregation, but he spoke to them as if he did, and when he called to the front anyone who knew of someone who needed help, I joined, on behalf of my niece. He looked at me directly and asked her name and the nature of her suffering. I was standing in a crowd of strangers, all African-Americans dressed in their Sunday best, and those nearest hugged me when Preacher Little asked everyone in the church to stand up for Brigid.
Old Slave Market, Charleston

That warmth, that welcome, that genuine concern for others is what got the twenty-one year old killer into the church where the late Reverend Pinckney was the pastor.

What the confederate flag stood for is more complicated than racism, and yet, no doubt incapable of seeing complexity, bigots have reduced its meaning to serve their own cruel purposes. I learned on my trip through the south a couple of years ago that what we call the Civil War is known there as The War of Northern Aggression. The industrial northern states wanted the federation to have more control. The southern states wanted to keep their rights to do what they wanted, including owning slaves. But slavery was also practiced in the north, by men as integral to the country as Thomas Jefferson. As a visitor to the south, I found it odd to see the flag still so prominent, hanging from porches, displayed on bumper stickers, used for advertising, and as a common symbol on tombstones in graceful old cemeteries like Bonaventure in Savannah. The history of the civil war is a major tourist draw. I visited Thomas Ryan's slave market in Charleston and a former indigo plantation outside of town, where slave cemeteries were located well beyond the sight of the main house.

People still re-enact civil war battles, like author Tony Horwitz describes in his book Confederates in the Attic. It's a little like those jousting contests other people stage, their hobby being to re-enact battles and battle styles of the past. A sort of living history, but still history. The past. Relegating the confederate flag to museums instead of flying it prominently over the state capitol building will declare that the nation-dividing battles of the 18th century are indeed long over. Instead of decorating tombstones, the flag itself must be buried so not to to goad the easily confused into thinking that times have not changed. Times have changed, even if not enough.

As Pastor Little taught me in Savannah, I stand up for those nine families who lost those wonderful individuals, and also -- in the spirit of compassion they represented -- for the family of that pathetic young man who gained power he thought was his right only because he could buy a gun.

Gawga on mah mind: it's personal

  The spreading oaks, the moss that lazes from their branches. An iconic image of Slo-vannah, as my hostess Jane says this beautiful city is sometimes called. The first day, yes, I can see why. The humidity penetrates even my lightest clothes. I walk at half my normal pace and sit to rest in Franklin Square. My feel for the city grows just as slowly. First outer Abercorn -  box store Savannah - then downtown,  the squares and the neighbourhoods clustered around them. The graceful houses and tours to learn about their architecture and the history of the most popular, such as the Mercer House where so many movies have been filmed. As Walker Percy wrote, movie connections lend a heightened reality to a situation. When a character lights a cigarette for William Holden in The Moviegoer, "... he has won title to his own existence, as plenary an existence now as Holden's..." Then the river and its long, too commercial for my taste, river walk. 

But Jane agrees to attend the service at the First African Baptist Church with me on Sunday morning, and that is when the Savannah theme begins to sound its sweet note, sweeter even than Jane's partner Carmela's  "y'all's", the gin-tility of the voices that first spoke in this region, and not another, the midwest, for example, or the north. It's personal. When Preacher Little speaks to his congregation, he speaks to individuals, he implores them to literally stand up for someone who needs help. He asks people to affirm the words he speaks: "Someone shout out, I'm covered!" And more than one person replies, "I'm covered!" When members of the congregation, including us, look at one another, they really look, they try to see; when we hold hands, it is a firm hand hold. The hugs not breezy air hugs, but actual embraces. Powerful. Jane and I, in our sort-of Sunday best, leave the church with wet eyes, both heavier and lighter than when we walked in.  In my case, I have lost some assumptions and gained some understanding, another theme on this trip.

Personal, too, my talk with a young man at a bus stop, the Savannah cop who called me a cab, and Shep, who had just come from his Thanksgiving dinner at the Old Savannah City Mission and offered to wait with me at the Savannah  Market for the cab to arrive.

Thanks to columnist Jane, I meet sculptors and soul food cooks, yoga instructors, health food store and wine shop proprietors, and Toby, who arrived in Savannah in 2005, having lost his Mississippi home to Katrina, saw a for rent sign on the Flannery O'Connor childhood home, moved into the top floor apartment had has stayed to become the guide and administrator of the shrine to this Southern author. Still soggy from the rain dripping off the banana tree leaves in her folk garden, Jane and I spend an easy hour or so chatting with Toby about Savannah and literature and recalling favourite O'Connor stories.

From what was her parent's bedroom, Flannery could see the cathedral spire that dominates that section of Savannah. When I stop into the church the next day, a children's choir is practicing Christmas carols. Perfect. "Sing in exaltation!"

In the haunting Bonaventure Cemetery, the description "Loyal" is etched into the marble wreathe above the tomb of a Confederate officer's wife. Not just a wife, but a LOYAL wife. That seems personal too.