During the single year I attended a predominantly white church, after having worshipped lifelong in black ones, George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin and Michael Dunn gunned down black teenager Jordan Davis in a parking lot, then went home and ordered pizza.
No one at my church mentioned it. Not before service or after. No one spoke their names during the part of the liturgy where we were encouraged to call out petitions to God in corporate prayer.
I didn't mention Trayvon or Jordan, either; I was entirely out of my element. I'd never attended a church service following a racially motivated act of violence where no one brought the victims up. I'd never had to wonder if my fellow parishioners were aware of it, if it mattered to them, or if they believed, like I did, that the white perpetrators had racist intent.
I knew I wouldn't stay at that church, even before those boys died. But afterward, as I worried that the onus would always fall on me or the other six black members to say the names of black victims aloud in the sanctuary, my departure was imminent. In the wake of a race-related tragedy, no black church member wants to assume the role of patient and benevolent educator — especially if the act of violence was committed in a black church. We want church to be one of the few institutions in this country we can approach with confidence that everyone present understands and acknowledges the history of black oppression in America.
Black churches guarantee that confidence. An enslaved Kentuckian named Peter Duerett founded the first African Baptist Church in the US around 1790, setting a precedent for racially and culturally separate worship on plantations. When freedom in Christ was discussed at a Sunday service where every congregant was enslaved, it meant something quite different than it did for the slaveowners who attended all-white churches elsewhere. In an era where a historic black church can still be the site of white supremacist mass murder, it still does.
During the week that has followed the Charleston massacre, the black church has found itself in the national spotlight, its historical significance as a bulwark of social empowerment and reinvigoration highlighted. Friday, as we watched President Barack Obama eulogize Rev. Clementa Pinckney, its contemporary resonance was reaffirmed.
A socio-emotional and psychological shorthand exists within black institutions of worship and President Obama's remarks showed that he had full access to that shorthand. As I watched the funeral with my grandmother, she straightened up on the sofa when the camera panned to the president and first lady. They strode in during a musical selection and immediately fell into a double-clap rhythm with the congregation. "He's gettin' ready to preach," she said. "Just look at him." She'd noted the bounce in his step, his seamless immersion in the gospel-steeped service, the ease of his carriage, and she just knew.
She was right.
Himself no stranger to black church membership, having attended Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for 20 years (then famously denounced its pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright's incendiary comments in 2008), the president seemed at home at the pulpit, his cadence at times indistinguishable from the preachers whose comments preceded his. When he spoke of the significance of the black church, he did so not as a scholar but as an intimate.
Of the June 17 murders of nine Emanuel AME Church members during bible study, he observed:
Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church… Over the course of centuries, black churches served as "hush harbors" where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah; rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.
They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm's way, and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter.
That's what happens in church.
That's what the black church means. Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate.
It was a staggering, deeply gratifying moment, heightened just minutes later, when the organist Charles Miller Jr. began to accompany him, just as any organist would when a preacher's sermon crescendoed and closed in a black church.
But as tailored as many moments of his message were to black churchgoers and mourners, he wasn't just speaking to us. In 2012, President Obama controversially asserted, "I am not the president of black America. I'm the president of the United States of America." That unifying sentiment has been one that he's espoused since his first big moment on the national stage, at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. There, he said, "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."
To echo those messages, he conjured the image of the Confederate flag. Rather than roundly rejecting both it and the soldiers who fought under its banner, he toed a very precise line:
For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.
Removing the flag from this state's capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought —the cause of slavery — was wrong… It would be one step in an honest accounting of America's history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God's grace.
With those words, the president offered a clinic in how to marry race and religion in multicultural congregations, how to ensure that black parishioners know where their leader stands on America's racist past and present, without the self-flagellation some seem to believe is a requisite of acknowledging white guilt. He even used as a refrain the famed "Amazing Grace," a hymn written by John Newton, a former slave trader.
The first integrated church in America, the Baptist Free Church (later called Tremont Temple Baptist Church), was entrenched in the abolitionist movement in Boston. In 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Law took effect, the church passed a resolution rejecting it and declaring that slaves would be welcomed and respected in their sanctuary. The church would go on to be burned three times: in 1852, 1879, and 1893. But it was rebuilt in 1896 and remains there today, committed to the same inclusive principles.
There are ways for all of today's churches to appropriately contend with America's ongoing racial bias and violence, but it's likely easier in institutions founded with an understanding of racism as something to openly discuss and repudiate. It's harder after decades of segregation and silence.
When I was a black congregant at a white church, all I would've needed was a public and honest accounting of history, an acknowledgment that the racist sins of the past have allowed for the horrors we've witnessed at the hands of Zimmerman, Dunn, or Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist charged in the Charleston shooting. I may have gotten that, had I walked back into my old church last weekend, but I wasn't certain.
I knew where to go last Sunday, just days after the Charleston Nine were slaughtered. I made my way to a black church. The pastor mentioned Charleston as soon as he took the pulpit. He invoked history immediately, stressed the importance of our passing that history onto our children. He talked to us of Denmark Vesey, of Fannie Lou Hamer, of the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham. Like Obama, he spoke of God's amazing grace. And as we held hands for the benediction, he led us in a rousing, two-verse rendition of the black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
It was just as the president described it. Indeed, it was a place where our dignity as a people was inviolate.
Stacia L. Brown is a writer in Baltimore. She blogs at stacialbrown.com.