A group of Christians from Princeton decided to show their solidarity with the Emanuel AME Church last weekend by making the trip to Charleston, South Carolina to be a spiritual and physical presence there.
Four representatives from the Stone Hill Church of Princeton flew to Charleston Friday night to show their support for Emanuel AME, pray with church members, and comfort residents in the wake of the shooting that killed nine members of the historic black church as they gathered for a Bible study.
The Stone Hill church members participated in marches, spent hours outside the church talking and praying with people, and attended the worship service at Emanuel AME on Sunday morning.
Tracy Troxel, associate pastor of congregational care at Stone Hill Church, said is was a humbling experience being with the Emanuel congregation. Members of Emanuel had two powerful messages about love and justice that they communicated in everything they did, he said.
“The first message they emphasized was forgiveness, mercy, and grace, even for shooter Dylann Roof,” Troxel said. “Most of the family members offered words of forgiveness at the court appearance. The church as a whole also expressed that it did not want Charleston to burn to the ground. The church did not want people to respond with more violence.”
While promoting forgiveness and peace, the church members also stressed the need for the city, state and country to do a better job of striving for racial justice.
“The governor and mayor were in attendance at the Sunday service. The message from the congregation was, things need to change,” Troxel said.
The Weekend at Emanuel AME
The Stone Hill church team arrived in Charleston with partners from a church in the Bronx, Infinity Bible Church, just before midnight on Friday. The group went to Emanuel from about midnight to 3 a.m. to visit with people gathered there and listen to people who were grieving. On Saturday they spent most of the day in front of the church again.
“Key church leaders were killed who were known by many. Everyone was grieving. We did a lot of praying with people, preaching, and singing. People were struggling to process their grief,” Troxel said.
Stone Hill members also participated in two marches — one was organized by Black Lives Matter and the other was a unity march on a bridge that drew thousands of people.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but it was a movement in the right direction,” Troxel said.
For many white people in Charleston, the shootings were an eye opener, Troxel said. There was a realization that while people may not have directly or willfully attempted to harm an African-American person, they’ve been part of a system that has oppressed African-Americans for hundreds of years.
“A lot of people were asking for forgiveness and saying they want to change,” he said. “They were seeing things more clearly for the first time.”
The group comforted family members of victims, and Stone Hill is collecting money to help two of the families. The church will also be sending a representative down to Charleston to attend the funeral service.
Troxel said he was in awe of the grace shown by members of Emanuel AME.
“Here I am, a white person. I’m not from there. They don’t know me. A white guy came to their church Bible study and stood there and shot their members. Here we are the next Sunday at a church service, and the African-Americans welcome me, a stranger, with open arms, to worship,” he said. “They were a model of forgiveness, mercy and grace. Anyone would have the right to say `go somewhere else.’ But they welcomed us, reached out their hands, gave us hugs, and said thank you.
“I tried to picture in mind some other ethnic group walking into our church and shooting people, and then people from same group coming to the church,” he said. “What would we do? Would we welcome them or be scared and standoffish?”
The trip to Charleston was one outcome of a series of conversations at Stone Hill about race. For the month of May, sermons examined the issue. The church has also hosted more than a dozen group discussions where people could raise questions and share what their experiences have been in a safe environment.
A minister from Infinity Bible Church preached at one of the Stone Hill services in May. He told the church about his trip to Baltimore after the riots broke out there.
“We said if you ever go on trip again like that, we’d like to go with you,” Troxel said. “He called us after the shootings last week to say he was going down to Charleston. We scrambled to go with him and we got on the plane together in New York.”
Discussions about race began at Stone Hill after Trayvon Martin was shot. Pastors noticed that African-American parishioners were wearing black to church after the shooting and this led to conversations about racism. A multi-ethnic racial reconciliation group was formed at the church to host frank discussions about race.
“Sometimes the conversations have been difficult,” Troxel said. “People have been angry, and have struggled together. But it has forged a stronger relationship and an understanding. The discussions propelled the sermon series and gatherings in May.”
The most segregated hour in America is still Sunday 11 a.m. Congregations are often scared to address the issue of race out of a fear that people will not listen to them, or that they will be rejected, misunderstood or labelled as racists. But for the country to make progress, those difficult conversations need to take place, Troxel said.
Troxel recalled that a Latino woman commented at the Princeton Stand Against Racism that in Princeton, most people say all the right things, but there are very few relationships between people of different colors that bridge educational or class lines. People earning doctorates at the Princeton University may have relationships, but people do not have many relationships with regular workers and immigrants in town, Troxel said.
Stone Hill is likely to keep hosting discussions on race, Troxel said, because the church has just scratched the surface, and wounds don’t heal over one meal together or one discussion.
“We live in a broken world. We need to deal with things with grace, and insist on justice,” he said. “There is a lot of work to do. It’s a major national issue that is deeply embedded in our culture.”
Photos courtesy of the Stone Hill Church.
Members of the Stone Hill group who went to Charleston will speak at a candelight vigil tonight at Tiger Park on Palmer Square. The vigil begins at 7:30 p.m. Marchers will gather at the Mt. Pisgah AME church at 170 Witherspoon Street at 7 p.m. and walk to the park together.