confederate flag

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.