Last night at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a white man walked into a prayer meeting in a black church. Initial reports say he remained in the meeting an hour before opening fire. I’m a white pastor, but this past Sunday was a vacation day, so I went to a black church where an African American friend is the pastor. Having just made this visit, and having worshiped in many African American churches, I think I have some sense of how the young man would have been received.
Someone would have greeted him warmly with a handshake at the door. If the someone was an older woman, likely he would have received a hug. They would have helped him to find a seat. If there were any materials, such as a printed list of prayer concerns, he would have been provided with this. As he was seated, there would have been more handshakes. People who caught his eye would have smiled as a way of reassuring him that he was welcome. We are told this was a small gathering of twelve people, so if the prayer time or Bible study had already started, and the pastor was speaking to the group, the pastor would have made eye contact and given him a nod or a smile.
Of course the young man may well have appeared “troubled.” If so, the dynamics would have been a bit different. All of the above would have happened, but the people could well have been wary of this newcomer in a way people would not have been of me on Sunday. They could well have been worried about him, in the sense that he could be a threat. But, given that there was apparently prayer going on, they might also have been worried for him, in the sense of Christian concern. It is not at all hard to imagine that people in the room would have silently prayed for this young man without his knowing it as he sat among them.
People unfamiliar with churches might wonder, if in fact he was a stranger who appeared out of place and possibly troubled, why someone didn’t “do something.” Why not question him? Why not ask him to leave? These are not options for churches. We don’t do that. We can’t do that. When we gather in the name of the one who said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,” we can’t at the same time turn someone away because they seem troubled or burdened.
I know how this man would have been received last night. To the degree he allowed it, he would have been embraced by followers of Christ. And then he shot them. My God, my God.
Rev. Chris Caldwell
Pastor, Broadway Baptist Church, Louisville