Religious leaders in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn leap to defend their community and nation against the spiritual evil seen in the Charleston, South Carolina murders.
Pastors also encourage their congregants to support the families of the martyrs through prayer.
On the night of Wednesday June 17, in the historic African American Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a young white man sat with parishioners in a Bible study on the Gospel of Mark, 4:16-20, which likens the word of God to a seed that must fall on good soil to bear fruit. After nearly an hour of listening about how to cultivate a good heart, Dylann Roof, 21, pulled out a .45 caliber handgun, shot and shot, reloading five times before exiting the church, leaving nine dead behind him.
He picked a church to do his evil deeds; he picked a people, African Americans, as his symbolic targets; and he picked a prominent city to catch attention and provoke a race war, according to recent news accounts.
Religious leaders in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn didn’t want to separate the racial and spiritual dimensions of the attack. To many the racist attack is the sign of a demonic presence and the continuing stain of the sin of racism.
“It’s Satan...Satan doesn’t want people to be all they can be.”
From New Life in Christ Ministries Day Care, Susan Sampson, mourns, “The shooting in South Carolina reminds us that there is a spiritual war going on. Satan is on a rampage. Anyone who calls on the name of Jesus--[Satan] comes out at you in an attack.”
The hand of the murderer was driven by a spiritual desperation. “In his blind rage [Roof] is looking for something, an escape from loneliness,” says Sampson, who is the wife of Gary Sampson, the pastor of New Life. “People like him “are jealous, sometimes, of the relationships that the children of God have.” She mentioned that the Charleston AME members showed him love and friendship, which can bring people out of demonic fury. But not this time.
Elder Robert Jones of Believers Gateway to Freedom Church maintains a sense of compassion, even pity, on the young man who was afflicted with “spiritual wickedness.”
“There’s a lot of confused people in the world, Jones observes. “[Roof] was one of them. Some people look healthy but they’re missing one important part. If people recognized [who they are in Jesus], that would give them ammunition to fight [the wickedness].”
If a person doesn’t know God, suggests a leader at BedStuy’s Ba Beta Kristiyan Haile Selassie I, then they cannot know who they are. He would tell Roof, “look inside yourself, find the God inside yourself.”
“Before I knew [God], I was full of confusion, too,” attests the Rastafarian leader (he prefers that we not use his name). “Roof needs to educate himself on his own roots.”
Ba Beta Kristiyan is the only church of its type in North America. It teaches that all people originally come from Ethiopia. The church leaders wonders if an understanding of this human history would have uprooted what another BedStuy church leader called his “dark notions” about African Americans.
This spiritual attack robbed Roof of his human potential as well as the lives of the people that he murdered, says Bishop Rothel Highsmith of Bright Light Family Worship Center. “Satan doesn’t want people to be all they can be.”
“Did the Civil War ever end?”
Linda Gates, who grew up in Antioch Baptist Church, comes from a generation of middle-aged congregants who once believed they would see the end of racism in America. Now, Gates asks, “did the Civil War ever end?”
She fears that Roof’s actions were not a solitary event but part of a canon with the American mindset when it comes to race. “[Racism] is still alive in our present society and it’s being nourished,” said the lady leader, who is also the principle of PS 5 on Hancock Street. She focused on a long history of educational deficiencies of the country in regard to race.
“This man was 21, and he was trained” to think and act a certain way. Gates is dismayed that churches are remaining silent, “not speaking so not teaching,” the lessons of the previous generations of civil right activists.
“At this point [racism] should have been diminished. [But] we’re going backwards,” argues Gates. Statistics say the racial divide in the United States is getting worse but the problems are “just masked.”
Gates’ Antioch Baptist Church is a sister church to Emmanuel AME in the spirit of civil activism, says Gates. Her childhood pastor George Lawrence was a passionate speaker who kept close ties with civil rights leaders such as the Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Jesse Jackson and the politicians Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and Governor Nelson Rockefeller (who attended the nearby Green Avenue Baptist Church), and the entertainer Ossie Davis.
Memelek Ben-Gad, a member of Beth Shalom Hebrew Congregation, says that the killer Roof is a child of “deep racial wounds” that have existed in American society since the Civil War. The wounds produce individuals who “can’t see people as people,” because of what they’ve been taught about skin color.
James “Rocky” Robinson, founder of the Bed-Stuy Volunteer Ambulance Corps, recalls that Roof cited a Black takeover of the country as the reason for his attack. Robinson muses that the success of America is that African Americans have become “Congress people, senators, presidents.” Some like Roof take that success as proof of White disenfranchisement. The racist past seems to continue along with the success of democracy.
“Our country said it was ready for a minority president, but it seemed that from day one, racism opened up. Never before has the office of the president been so disrespected,” says Pastor Don Bethany of New Testament Church of God. “[President Obama] experiences massive disrespect to himself as a person and as an office,” a sign that electing an African American president has not moved America forward as much as we thought it would.
The attack offers an opportunity to revisit these topics that may have been prematurely laid aside and “spend some time and intentionally [...] dialoguing, listening, trying to understand the racial divide, hopes Rector Glenworth Miles of St. George’s Anglican/Episcopal Church. If this opportunity is not taken, “it will undoubtedly happen again.”
As the community continues to process the news out of Charleston, South Carolina, these Bed Stuy leaders say their congregations must band together to fight this new round of an old fight.
“Satan comes to divide and disconnect. The church provides unity regardless of race,” says Bethany of New Testament Church of God.
“Bishop Desmond Tutu said we are God’s rainbow people. Can we cross the great divide to understand that we are rainbow people, created by God?” asks Miles of St. George’s Anglican/Episcopal Church.
“We can show support through prayer like the President and others did by circling around for prayer during 9/11. We need to join hand in hand and cry out to the Lord,” implores Sampson of New Life in Christ Ministries.
“Overreaction is really not necessary. The last message [we] want to send is that we’re worshipping in fear. Jesus said, fear not! So we’re certainly not going to proclaim the gospel in the midst of fear,” says Miles of St. George’s.
“We have no fear in our service. We minister to all who come, even if they have alternative motives—God already protects his place,” concludes Sampson of New Life.
Additional reporting by Tony Carnes, Sadie Cruz, Shiloh Frederick and Elizabeth Simakoff.