THE BLOG

Tragedy in South Carolina

06/19/2015 08:56 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI via Getty Images

Many of us in Charleston, South Carolina began grieving on Wednesday night when we heard that a white gunman had killed nine innocent black people gathered at the historic Emanuel AME Church, three blocks from where I live. This church, with a primarily black membership, once was a secret meeting place for African-Americans who wanted to end slavery at a time when laws in Charleston banned all-black church gatherings.

My grieving turned to anger on Thursday morning when I listened to national television commentary about the slayings. A caller on C-SPAN blamed it on tolerance for homosexuality, which caused God's wrath. Fox News spun this racially motivated crime into an attack on Christianity, and one guest suggested that pastors arm themselves during services. I also disliked hearing people on both left and right say how much worse the crime was because it happened in a church. Killing nine people is horrendous, regardless of where it happens.

On Thursday at noon, I attended a vigil at nearby Morris Brown AME Church, also a traditionally black church, where the entire community was invited to pray for peace, understanding, and healing. As an atheist I don't pray, but I support those goals. I thought of the anti-war song "Lay Down", by Melanie, and the line "Some came to sing, some came to pray, some came to keep the dark away." I was there to help keep the dark away by showing support for a beleaguered African-American community.

The service by a series of African-American pastors was heartfelt and moving. During prayers I stood politely, but didn't read aloud because I don't have a friend in Jesus and don't believe his blood is helping me. I only winced once, at a line from Psalm 136: "To Him that smote Egypt in their firstborn, for his mercy endureth forever."

I was amazed to watch people singing, clapping and dancing in the aisles with broad smiles during this tragic time. I'm more than 99 percent certain that no God or Jesus was listening to their prayers, but I'm 100 percent certain that many in the audience felt transformed, if only by what I viewed as a placebo effect.

With national media on hand, I was not surprised to see South Carolina congressmen, senators, mayors, and the governor in attendance. I give them the benefit of the doubt about being in the right place at the right time, and not acting out of political self-interest. (That's different from what I wrote about Governor Nikki Haley when she promoted The Response prayer event last week.) While mostly non-partisan, I took note of politicians who spoke of needed action and those who spoke only of the power of prayer.

Everyone present was keenly aware that a white man had allegedly killed nine black people out of racial hatred. I was happy to see that at least a third of the attendees at the vigil were white. Many leaders of the AME Church commented appreciatively about the diversity of the audience, but never once used the word "white." They referred to the audience as a "colorful gathering" and looking like "patches of a South Carolina quilt." One minister said, "We haven't seen a room that looks like this in a long time."

I applauded heartily when one minister told the crowd, "Pray, but also get off your knees and work to improve our community." I took as appropriate metaphors what some in the audience took literally. For instance, one minister compared the "domestic terrorist" who killed the nine black people to the terrorists who killed Jesus. He said, "Jesus rose again on the third day to make the world a better place, but it won't take us three days to rise and make this a better place."

Holding hands with our neighbors, and with a tear in my eyes, at the end of the service we sang "We Shall Overcome." I had never thought of this as a hymn, but it reminded me of when I sang it in the 1960s during civil rights marches and Vietnam War protests. We were asked to continue holding hands as we prayed to Jesus. I didn't want to withdraw my hand from the black man on my right, so we held hands as the minister prayed for Jesus to get rid of any hate in our heart and replace it with love. So it turned out that I came to sing, pray and keep the dark away.

Meanwhile, South Carolina secular humanists groups were deciding how they can help. To begin with, we have set up a fund to contribute to the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund. Everyone is invited to contribute.

Coincidentally, that evening I planned to attend a meeting called before the Wednesday tragedy occurred. SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) is a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. At the vigil, one pastor brought the audience spontaneously to their feet when he urged "Let your voice be heard!" I think there are times in history when silence and absence give tacit consent to evil. This is one of those times in Charleston, and maybe where you live, too.