For black America, the church has long symbolized freedom, faith and reconciliation.
Since slavery days, it has always been a place for refuge and deliberation and a catalyst for great change. It is where many blacks learned to love, find fellowship and praise, study, sing and honor their history. Church is the place where black people sat next to their mothers, grandmothers and aunts, learned how to pay attention and hear the hallowed words delivered by the pastor at the pulpit each Sunday morning.
That refuge was attacked last week when a white gunman allegedly killed nine black people after a Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The shooter allegedly targeted the church because of its history—the free black man who founded it was hanged for trying to incite a slave revolt—and the race of its members.
This latest attack is a reminder of how far Americans still have to go in race relations—even at church. In the United States, Sunday mornings remain one of the most segregated times despite the long history of people coming together across dominations and faiths to advocate for the abolition of slavery and years later fight for civil rights.
Now a multiracial group of well-known ministers and clergy members is out to shift how people talk about race and faith through an initiative the Reconciled Church. This is a movement born in the aftermath of last year’s unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and meant to address race and faith and move past those Sundays of segregation.
The Root last weekend asked several key leaders and lieutenants of the Reconciled Church to share their views about the spiritual and moral soul of America in the wake of the murder of nine people in church by a 21-year-old allegedly seeking to start a "race war."
Bishop T.D. Jakes, co-founder of the Reconciled Church and senior pastor of the Potter's House of North Dallas:
"The country is in moral turmoil right now. It has not lived up to its best and highest ideals for all Americans. We have yet to address the historical context of America when it comes to race. And until we do, we will continue to see these kinds of acts of racial violence.
"Yet I am heartened in the midst of the tragedy in Charleston to see the many Americans who do care and who have reached out to help, pray and work to heal the turmoil. This country has always progressed in its thinking around race, over the bloodshed of its own hypocrisy. The only vindication then that we can offer the grieving families is that America will respond to their loss and that we as a nation will forge a better way forward."
Pastor A.R. Bernard, senior pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in New York City:
"What took place in Charleston was not local, but it is systemic. And to have these things happen and to then engage in the same debates, going nowhere, means it’s going to happen again. Because recurring sins will recur until they are addressed. And it’s a hard conversation for this nation to have but it’s a conversation that has to be very confidently and very fearlessly addressed.”
James Robison, co-founder of the Reconciled Church and president of Life Today Ministries in Texas:
"Charleston is a wake-up call for America. No form of unkindness or critical bullying spirit toward someone in any community is acceptable. There is no place for mockery or belittling people. If a Christian sees hate, we must move in directly to diffuse that hate, no matter the cost.
"We have to be unafraid to encourage love across all racial lines. I want to do everything that I can do to diffuse hate and racism. We must build bridges. It may seem we are trying to do the impossible, but it is not impossible; we can find common ground. That is how we will win the soul of America back."
Sharon Nesbit, founding pastor and apostle of Dominion World Outreach Ministries in Arkansas:
"What we see in America right now is what has really been taking place all along. It is just more out in the public. The church has been absent and silent. Charleston demands now that we do something about it. The church is what sparked the civil rights movement. The Reconciled Church has to adjust the racial injustice in the church first.
"The church must be a unified place where black and white people can truly [find] fellowship and worship together. We are still separate, and until we come together as the body, our nation will be separate.”
Bishop Harry Jackson, founder of the Reconciled Church and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Maryland:
"Charleston was our worst fears come true. Charleston is a game changer because the violence perpetrated against black people in a church means that if we do not get an umpire or referee in the midst of our current racial debate, [then] we are on a collision course that, in fact, poses a clear and present danger to the security of the United States of America.
"The church has to be that referee. The church has got to win the right to be heard. It is not enough to preach the Gospel. We must model it, preaching in action. We must model love in our spiritual working clothes. If the church can come together and lead, I believe we can bring racial healing to the nation."
David Uth, senior pastor of First Baptist Orlando:
"It is another reminder of the brokenness of this nation—of our fractured souls. Anytime there is a fractured soul, the evidence of that will find its way through the weakest part of us. For the man who did this, it was prejudice. For others, it is a hatred.
"What evil did in Charleston—and what the enemy will try to do—is to find a way to divide America, black and white. The Reconciled Church stands on ground that is stronger than one evil hater. If God [will] be for us, who can be against us? What the enemy meant to divide and destroy, I believe God will use to unite us and to overcome."
Sheryl Brady, senior pastor of the Potter's House in North Dallas:
"To me the events in Charleston speak volumes [as] to the need for deep solutions that come from deeper convictions. We are going to need to rise up as the global church and lead. Racism is learned behavior. We must unlearn this learned behavior.
"Parents must recognize it, unlearn it, deal with it and reframe the consciousness of America again. The part of me that is a pastor hurts for Charleston. As a grandmother of bi-racial grandchildren a part of me personally rises up. I am deeply [convinced about the need for] educating this generation [about] how not to continue on with this behavior."
In the final analysis, what each of these faith leaders is saying is that if Americans are going to heal their nation’s racial divide, they cannot say they don’t see color or that they are colorblind. The goal should not be to not see color. People must view this tragedy as an opportunity to learn and have new experiences and appreciate and engage with the creativity of God through his children.