Lessons from Mother Emanuel

August 18, 2017

Ellen Weaver

Former President & CEO

The recent race-based violence in Charlottesville, Virginia brought back strong memories of the massacre at Mother Emanuel. Two hate-driven tragedies, two years apart, defined by two very different outcomes.

Reflecting back on the thoughts that poured out of my heart in the immediate wake of Mother Emanuel, so much has changed and yet so much remains the same:

We ache for unity in our communities.  But with so many forces – political calculation, media sensationalism, deep cultural assumptions and more – bent on dividing us, is reconciliation even possible?  The answer: it simply must be!  I recently heard it said that “Bold leaders have an unreasonable commitment to something that isn’t but should be.”

Will we determine to be those kind of leaders in our own spheres of influence?

There is no doubt it will be a difficult task.  As the fog of grief lifts, the relative comfort of inertia and the poison pills of personal agendas and political grandstanding will be as strong as ever.  But we can do better if we determine that we are stronger than the culture of cynicism and division in which we swim.  If we understand that centralized government “solutions” will never ultimately fix things and instead truly commit to follow the second great commandment: to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Love grounded in an ennobling belief in the inherent dignity and worth of every human being.  Love that enables us to put down personal dogmas and sets us free to risk engaging in respectful, authentic conversations with people who may see things differently. Love that empowers us to extend and inconvenience ourselves for the sake of our neighbors and communities. Love that does the simple but often hard things like inviting someone different than you to share a meal.

Love that springs from the nourishing common ground on which we stand to say that we believe in the inherent dignity and worth of every human being.

A year after Mother Emanuel, we mourned another senseless shooting at an Orlando night club. Utah’s Lt. Governor Spencer Cox powerfully captured the same theme:

“…just because an easy solution doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The greatest generations in the history of the world were never innately great. They became great because of how they responded in the face of evil. Their humanity is measured by their response to hate and terror.

I truly believe that this is the defining issue of our generation. Can we be brave? Can we be strong? Can we be kind and, perhaps, even happy, in the face of atrocious acts of hate and terrorism? Do we find a way to unite? Or do these atrocities further corrode and divide our torn nation? Can we, the citizens of the great state of Utah, lead the nation with love in the face of adversity? Can WE become a greatest generation?

I promise we can. But I also promise it will never happen if we leave it to the politicians. Ultimately, there is only one way for us to come together. It must happen at a personal level. We must learn to truly love one another.”

And here we are again, perhaps feeling helpless in the ebb and flow of anger around us. But as individuals, we can each choose world-changing love: sharing a meal with a stranger, being a helper to those in need, serving in our local churches and civic organizations, engaging those who are different than us with kindness, remembering that they too are fellow-image bearers of our Creator.

Our generation can – and must – rise to this existential challenge of our time. It will not be easy. It will require personal sacrifice and setting aside political dogmas on both sides of the aisle. And it will require courageous leadership:

As Martin Luther King, Jr. so beautifully expressed from his Birmingham jail cell, ‘…by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.’ Unless we put this truth into action in every realm of our community life, this Charleston shooting will be just one more tragedy in the cycle of destruction and mistrust that is ripping our communities apart.

As we remember the victims in the Charleston shooting and pray for their loved ones, let’s also pray for leaders with the heart to speak truth and the courage to lead us toward a better way.

Love is the only force powerful enough to overcome the chaos we feel around us. Not a “sunshine and flowers” kind of love, but the type of difficult, soul-changing commitment to love the unlovely, the different, even the hateful. The love demonstrated by the families of the Emanuel Nine, who stared unimaginable evil in the face…and chose to forgive.

May we follow their courageous example.