One of the many horrific things about the Charleston massacre is that it happened in a house of worship. As has been widely reported, the shooter targeted a historic church and sat in a bible study class for an hour before opening fire. We have always thought of a church as a safe and peaceful haven, and have encouraged our children to do so as well. What if our children are now afraid to go to church? How do we answer their questions about why God would let this happen in His house?
We turned to Rev. P. Kimberleigh Jordan, PhD for help with these weighty questions. She sadly reminded us that this attack on the worshipers of Emanuel A.M.E. was only the most recent in a long line of violent attacks on Black churches. We know about the 1963 Birmingham bombing, but there were church burnings in the Deep South in the late 90’s, and there have been other attacks on churches in recent years.(See the NYT listing of a selection of these attacks here.) Emanuel A.M.E. itself was burned to the ground in 1882 by angry whites who discovered that Denmark Vesey, founder of the church, was planning a slave revolt. Rev. Jordan assured us that churches have had extensive security measures in place for years which include guards and cameras, which will certainly be heightened after this attack. (The Charleston shooter was caught so quickly in part because the church security cameras had footage of him entering the building.)
Christians believe in welcoming strangers into their sanctuary. “Hospitality is embedded in what it means to be a Christian, and Black churches have always been particularly welcoming to strangers”, Rev. Jordan explained. Whatever risks there may be, she noted, “by faith we have chosen to use them as safe places”, and it is a continuing act of faith for us to continue to go to our churches. The Sunday after the massacre parishioners flooded the aisles of Emanuel A.M.E. to show their support for the church family and to show that they were not afraid. We can tell our children that we understand their concern, but if we regularly worship in church returning there as soon as possible will demonstrate our faith in God and our belief in the power of good over evil.
What about that faith? What if our children ask how God could have let this happen? Rev. Jordan drew parallels to 9-11, another national moment when we had to help our children understand how horribly bad things can happen to good and innocent people. She explained, “God did not have a plan that this should happen in Charleston. He is always present, always loving us, but can’t stop all bad things from happening. He is a force for good in the world. But individuals have free will, and evil is a force in the world too. God is always working on our behalf to battle evil.” She recommends the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Harold S. Kushner for those of us who want to explore this further.
Rev. Jordan wishes she could talk with her grandparents, who lived in an era where racial attacks were even more common, about how they coped. While her grandparents are unfortunately no longer here to answer, she believes she knows what they would say: “Keep moving.” You can grieve but you’ve got to keep moving–or else the bad guys win. We talked about the importance of parents remaining calm and focused in the wake of their children’s fears. She advises parents to “provide a non anxious presence” to their children in these circumstances, and noted “not freaking out is the gift we give to our children.” Amen!
Let us draw strength from watching Charleston come together after this horrible crime, and use this strength, our faith and everything else we’ve got to help our children cope with this tragedy.