January 14 – May 31, 2019
Originally published in the Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.
"In the streets they bind on sackcloth; on the housetops and in the squares
everyone wails and melts in tears." -Isaiah 15:3 (NRSV)
"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time." -James Baldwin
Above my bed hangs my certificate of ordination in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. It is much more than a piece of paper, but the physical representation of my call and life journey pursuing justice for God's creation in the name of Jesus Christ. The day I was ordained was the most meaningful day of my life. Peering out into the crowd that day, I saw a snapshot of my life story. There sat Erik, my best friend of 13 years, who was my first call in high school when, paralyzed by depression, I thought about ending my life. Behind him were Dom, Juli, Charles and Geoanna, who accompanied me across that bumpy terrain into adulthood known as college. My parents wiped tears of pride from their eyes. Three rows of friends, family and mentors in ministry were there, all standing witness in solidarity and affirmation of my vocational path. Toward the end of the service, I took my first communion as "Reverend Jennifer" with my 81-year-old grandmother, who softly repeated, "Thank you, God," over and over again.
This morning, I awoke under the watchful eye of that certificate into a living nightmare. Reports about the shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, dominated my social media feed as texts from friends and colleagues poured in. Some expressed sorrow. Others shock. Yet, the most visceral feeling in my gut was rage. Nine bullets pierced the side of nine black bodies and in the process, shattered lives and any remaining illusion that there are spaces where black lives are protected in the United States. They were mothers, grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers crucified at the foot of the cross for embodying the virtue of hospitality. If, as a Christian, rage is absent from your analysis of what happened in Charleston, I am not sure we worship the same God.
To be clear, the murder of these brothers and sisters was committed in the name of a demon disguised as a god: the god of white supremacy. It is a god whose hunger is only satiated with the blood sacrifice of black bodies. My ancestors in the AME Church knew this all too well. The AME Church was birthed out of a protest against racial inequity in the 18th century. After being denied access to the prayer space because of his race at a white Methodist Episcopal Church, our founder Richard Allen prayed then arose to prompting the movement that we now know as "the Black Church." Mother Emmanuel follows in this storied legacy of resistence to racial terrorism. In 1822, the church and one its founders, Denmark Vessey, was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt. As the Washington Post notes, the revolt was planned for June 16 -- 193 years and one day before the shooting Wednesday night. The plot created mass hysteria throughout the Carolinas and the South. The church was burned down, yet worship services continued until 1834, when all black churches were outlawed.
Nine people are dead today and I am angry. I have no doubt the anger I feel is righteous. My God is one who stands on the side of those who are marginalized and oppressed. My God is not docile, and is big enough to hold my anger, frustration and questions. My God understands that narratives of reconciliation and peace are not what my community needs right now. What we need is truth-telling and accountability. We need this horrific massacre to be named for what it was: a racist act of domestic terrorism. We need those in positions of power to acknowledge that this was not simply a "single incident," but the latest in a 400-year history of violence against black people in the United States. We need religious leaders to step up and speak out against implicit and explicit acts of racial violence in their congregations. Until then, I'll adorned in sackcloth and ashes in mourning for my people and the nation they call home. I will also be in the streets continuing to raise the profile of these issues in solidarity and sorrow. The virtue of anger is that it does not remain static. It is active and will not stop working until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).
Rev. Jennifer Bailey is a minister in the AME Church, a Nathan Cummings Foundation Fellow and Founder of the Faith Matters Network.