In It Together
June 25th, 2015
Last Sunday at 10 a.m., church bells tolled in unison all across the city of Charleston. They tolled for the nine shot dead in a Charleston church the Wednesday before. They tolled for an end to the madness and the hatred that pulled the trigger. They tolled for some proof that this country is better than that, for some sign that the world’s measure of us should not be in rounds spent and dead aim taken in armed insanity.
They tolled for Emanuel. For the children of Sandy Hook. For the families in the Aurora movie theater. For all the ghosts that should haunt us.
Sadly, over and over, they toll for thee.
As published in The Daily News, June 26, 2015, and in The Memphis News, June 27-July 3, 2015
For a few years, Nora was in a handbell choir at our church. The choir was invited to perform here and there. Being an Episcopal church, those trips were more a celebration than a solemn occasion, and, like the service itself, food and drink were central to the issue at hand. I tagged along because the here and there included roux-full places like Mobile and New Orleans.
There are several historic Episcopal churches in Charleston battling for most significant. Walking by one, St. Michael’s, I noticed a sign declaring that Charles Pinckney, signer of the United States Constitution, was buried there. Related to the Pinckneys on my mother’s side, I took a look and there he was. A couple of days later and just blocks away, I was wandering around the churchyard of St. Philip’s, where the choir would later perform that morning, and saw a familiar sign – Charles Pinckney, signer of the Constitution buried here. Confused and wondering which part was buried where, I inquired of an usher. Seems there were two – cousins – and they both signed the Constitution. After the service, I was talking with the music director when another man approached. “Dan,” said the director, “I would like you to meet our senior warden, Charles Pinckney.”
Until last week, that was an amusing story about a city caught up with its history, real and reimagined, and two churches jockeying for position in it. It was my go-to Pinckney story about families making connections in history, real and reimagined, and jockeying for position in it.
Last week, the story became a tragedy. The historic Episcopal church in Charleston is Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black church in the South, and its 199-year history has often been written as a struggle against prejudice, progress and common human decency – a struggle for survival. Last week, nine people lost their lives in that struggle accompanied not by handbells but – yet again – by gunfire, not by the hand of God but – yet again – by the hand of hatred in a house of God. One of the victims was the pastor of the church and a South Carolina state senator, Clementa Pinckney.
What happened to Clementa Pinckney happened to us. The African-American dead are American dead, the heart torn is the country’s, and the question of why and the demand of no more must be answered and addressed nationally. More than another sad chapter in Emanuel’s history, or Charleston’s, or South Carolina’s, this was American history being made and – sadly – repeated.
If we’re still living in a dream of equality, in a sleep state where mental illness is someone else’s problem, snoring peacefully away while the NRA locks and loads our polarized legislatures, it’s past time for us to wake up and smell the cordite.
Either we’re in this together, inspired by this church tragedy to look for our better angels, or we’ve marginalized the lives lost and ourselves.
I’m a Memphian, and we’re related.
If you don’t read it, I’ll read it to you.The book is available in print online and all over town and now in audio online at Amazon, Audible and iTunes, read by the author – columns, comments and character references for a city filled with it and often absolutely full of it. Take a look or a listen.