Mother Emanuel

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In the late-mid 1990s, I lived in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. There was a small Missionary Baptist church up the block — St. James — the congregation of which comprised about 15 or 20 African-American families who lived in the vicinity. One morning the church was gone, replaced by a few wet, charred vertical beams atop a sort of concrete pillbox basement. It turned out that the church had been burned down in a hate crime. It also emerged that the premises hadn't been well insured. In consequence, the church's congregants, who were anything but wealthy, had to purchase building materials with their own funds, then work to rebuild their own church on weekends and some evenings.

I used to walk to get my groceries back then, the "starving artist" that I sort of was at the time, and would wave in friendly fashion at the congregants up on their ladders with their saws and hammers as I passed. They, of course, would do the same. Finally, one day, a month or two into this waving friendship, your contributor here finally had the bright idea to stop and talk. I asked the pastor, who was readily identified by his sort of authoritative-tempered-by-avuncular manner, whether it would be OK if I chipped in, even though I wasn't a black Missionary Baptist. Rev. Carpenter laughed aloud while somehow seeming also not to be surprised by my moronic query. "Of course!" he chuckled, "you'd be welcome here if you were green and had two heads!" He slapped me on the back and I put down my grocery bags and got to work.

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Thus began a long and lovely fellowship. Little by little, I became more and more involved in the St. James family, which held Sunday School for all on Sunday mornings, worship service into early Sunday afternoon, choir practice every Monday evening and Bible study every Wednesday night. All of this continued in the pillbox basement as the church rose slowly back up overhead. Within a month or so, I was taking part in literally all of these activities. It felt so good! And, to even my own astonishment, within the year I had been full-immersion baptized and then made a deacon, with keys to the church and co-responsibility for the budget.

Of all the joys of this time, I think what were most wonderful were the choir practices on Mondays and the Bible studies on Wednesdays. Part of what was so wonderful was simply that you were doing this on weeknights, when most people were with their nuclear families in their private dwelling places. But part of it also was that we were so intimate a little group, sharing every Monday and Wednesday what was most perplexing, and what meant most, to us. You knew your brothers and your sisters in this circle (and that's what we were called — "Brother Bob," "Sister Gladys" — only Rev. Carpenter was other than a "brother" or a "sister") really would do anything for you, and that you would do the same for each and all of your siblings.

When I first saw the film clips of the Bible study session being held in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shortly before the violence began last week, the first thing that struck me was how familiar it all looked. This was exactly the kind of Wednesday night that I had known so many weeks over so many years. The second thing that struck me, though, was how much more familiar was the solemn and determined dignity of these inspiring congregants — just like my old friends who rebuilt what became our church with their own labor and materials. I wish, now, that I were one of them again, even way up here in New York state.

Were I to go to Charleston, S.C. now (long a favorite city), I suspect I'd sheepishly be asking for permission once again to help around the church. And I'll bet they'd laugh and say that I'd be welcome even were I green and double-headed, then resume their praying for the victims, and the victimizer, too.

Hockett, a regular contributor to The Hill, is Edward Cornell Professor of Law at Cornell University, senior consultant at Westwood Capital Holdings, LLC and a fellow at the Century Foundation.