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“Building Destroyed … Church Open” That was the sign that was in front of Lake Avenue Baptist Church in the days following the fire that destroyed the great stone building that stood on the site of what is now our church home. Out of great tragedy came a church that decided to move forward with all heart and soul and to seek to witness to the community that they would rebuild.
On Sunday June 21, 2015, the people of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, opened the doors to their church building for worship. This was unlike any other Sunday, however, as just days before a young man took the lives of 9 people who had gathered for Bible study and prayer in that very building. No one would have criticized the church if it had chosen to stay closed that Sunday. No one would have challenged the church if it had chosen to have only members in attendance for worship as they dealt with their grief. However, they chose to open the doors as they would have any other Sunday, as they indeed did on the night of the tragic shooting, to be together in one place and to welcome all those who wanted to come in. Out of a great tragedy came a church that decided to move forward with all heart and soul to witness to the community that they would rebuild.
Tragedies do indeed happen. We wish they did not, but they do. They are unexpected and they shake us to our core. We do not have any control over when they will happen and they catch us by surprise. They are, at their very core, experiences that we wish we would not have, but break into our daily experience and leave us changed forever. What we do have, however, is the capacity to decide what to do next. We do have the ability to choose what we wish to make of the tragedies in our lives.
Too often we allow tragedy to stop us in our tracks. That is a natural response and one that happens for tragedies large and small. But eventually we will reach a point where we must decide whether we wish to stay in that state of paralysis or whether we wish to move forward or back. In the instance of the community of LABC who were impacted by the fire in the early 1970’s out of the tragedy came a renewed focus on the community, planting ourselves once again in the Edgerton neighborhood for mission and ministry. We have experienced time and time again the fruits of our labor in this community and are forever grateful that we did not simply give up in the days and months and years after this painful experience. We decided to let God move in us as we moved forward.
In Charleston, Emanuel AME church was undoubtedly stopped in their tracks by the loss in their community. I cannot possibly understand how the community must be mourning. I certainly keep them all in my prayers as I trust you do too. But in the days following the shooting the Church did two things. First, the families of those killed chose to publicly express forgiveness to the shooter. Second, they chose to gather as they would any other Sunday and to worship God. In these two things they chose not to allow evil to paralyze them with fear and pain, but to look to God for guidance and grace. They chose to move forward with heart and soul and to seek to witness to the community that they would rebuild.
May we be a community that faces tragedy, our own and those around us, with God’s strength. May we turn to God for hope and peace in the midst of pain and sorrow. And may we be a people of prayer. May we pray for those impacted by this horrific act in Charleston, and for those impacted by the tragedies that fill our neighborhoods, our cities, our nation, and the world. And may we decide, in the midst of all of this pain, to move forward with heart and soul, with God, and continue to seek after God as God moves with us, as we witness and rebuild our Churches and our communities into the places where we see and serve God, together
Rev. Michael Ford is the Sr. Pastor at Lake Ave Baptist Church in Rochester, NY.