Even though I can’t physically be at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., for Friday’s funeral service, I am there in spirit—through a connection planted deep in my soul from an early age.
My father, Charles, and grandfather, known as Shep in an abbreviation of his middle name Shepherd, were both pastors at the AME Church. My grandfather was a presiding elder, who traveled South Carolina preaching and teaching preachers. Both of my grandmothers were saints who lived the church’s teachings. My mother, Althea, who joined the AME Church after marrying my father, was also very spiritual and saw to it that I learned from those teachers, as well as her.
I was born in South Carolina in a town called Due West, a ways from Charleston. But we didn’t live there long. My father was then an Army chaplain and stationed in Riverside, Calif. So we soon left Due West so he could get to know his new baby girl.
My mother traveled not only with the fat, little, hairless infant that I was; she traveled with the values embraced by the black people of Due West and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. These values helped African Americans keep on keepin’ on, despite the fact that the society around them every day and in every way tried to hold them down and enforce white superiority through Jim Crow laws and attitudes.
And while my father was serving his country, even in an Army that segregated him and all those who looked like him, he wore the armor of values forged in the AME Church. This armor enabled him to tend the black soldiers dying in his arms on the bloody battlefields of World War II and Korea, fighting for a country that didn’t recognize them as full citizens.
Yet they were able to give their lives, if necessary, because they understood better than those who segregated them the American promise of freedom and justice for all. And that enabled the ones who didn’t die on the battlefield to return home and continue the fight for their rights at home. They were guided, as they were on the battlefield, by the values in their head, heart and history.
It was those same values that my father and my mother and my grandparents and members of my segregated community used to create my suit of armor. They were values that spoke to the notion that all God’s children were equal in his sight (though as I grew older, I wondered about that pronoun but dared not do so out loud in the AME Church).
They were values, principles by which we were taught how to live as good citizens, even as the larger society refused to recognize us as such. What the AME Church and its black families did was to give black children like me a first-class sense of ourselves.
Early on, as I read that the massacre took place in an AME church during a Bible study session, I was transported back to St. Augustine, Fla., and many other locations in that state where my grandfather had been stationed, where my mother used to send me when I was a little girl to get further steeped in these values and to be outfitted in more layers of moral armor.
My father’s mother—my grandmother, Alberta Hunter—was a mighty crafter of the mission. Every day at noon she walked the few feet from the parsonage, the preacher’s home, to pray in the church.
Each day, despite my tomboyish efforts to elude her, she would eventually find me and make me learn a Bible verse. Her favorite was the 23rd Psalm, with its lines, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and they staff they will comfort me all the days of my life.”
As a 19-year-old entering under court order the previously all-white University of Georgia, I was confronted by a mob of people screaming and throwing rocks at my dormitory window and shouting for me to leave. They saw only their institution of white privilege, but I was shielded by my armor.
And as I read about 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, who last week in Charleston threw his body onto Suzie Jackson, his 87-year-old aunt, to shield her from the demented assailant’s bullets, I wondered if he, too, had been able to do that because he was clad in that moral armor, taught him during a Bible class at Mother Emanuel. It seemed so to me. And I hope as the victims perished, they felt the comfort of the rod and the staff they had been taught protected them.
Today, as I reach back to my history in the AME Church, I understand the forgiveness by those who have lost loved ones. It’s about enveloping themselves in the armor of their values to heal the hurt in their own souls, as Nelson Mandela did when he forgave those who had imprisoned him for 27 years and waged a brutal, vicious war on his people.
But that kind of forgiveness doesn’t preclude seeking justice. As a child of the AME Church, I am sure that those who are in pain in Charleston will use their tears today and in the days to come to polish their armor so that they, like those of us who mourn with them, can endure and prosper like so many generations before.
Especially crucial are those teaching lessons in Bible study.
They are needed to help America meet its most enduring challenge: racism and its role in failing to help America keep its promise to all its citizens whose lives matter.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a regular contributor to The Root, is the author of To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, published by Roaring Brook Press and the New York Times Co., and special correspondent for PBS NewsHour, focusing on race solutions.