CHARLESTON, S.C. (BP) — About 300 worshipers filled the sanctuary of historic Mother Emanuel Church Nov. 13 for a session of South Carolina Baptists’ annual meeting, held at the site of the 2015 massacre of nine black worshipers by a self-avowed white supremacist. An overflow crowd of 400 watched from closed-circuit TV at the nearby Citadel Square Baptist Church.
South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC) President Marshall Blalock had arranged for SCBC messengers to hold evening worship at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in keeping with the annual meeting theme, “Building Bridges.”
“I don’t know if we’ve ever been in a more sacred place,” Blalock told messengers and guests. “As we gather in Mother Emanuel Church, the place itself speaks to us of the power of faith in Christ Jesus. We’re in a place of safety because, while it’s where hearts were broken, it’s also the place where the life-saving power of God’s grace is.”
Blalock’s heart was changed in the months following the race-motivated murders at Mother Emanuel on June 17, 2015, he said, when he realized there was unintentional segregation in his own network of relationships.
“The outpouring of love and unity that inspired the world has faded some over time, but the deep conversations over race can now take place,” he told The Courier a year after the shootings.
Ronnie Floyd, who emphasized racial unity during his Southern Baptist Convention presidency 2014–2015, was among guest speakers; joined by host pastor Eric Manning, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) assistant professor Walter Strickland, and Anthony Thompson, whose wife Myra died in the 2015 shooting.
Floyd, senior pastor of the multisite Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, chose John 13:34 to emphasize that love must cross racial lines.
“Racism is an assault on the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Floyd said. “When you belong to Jesus, you belong to love. You forfeit your right to choose whom you will love.”
He recalled the 2015 SBC Annual Meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The evening of July 16, messengers were on their knees praying for the country to have a spiritual awakening. Less than 24 hours later, he began hearing the shocking news coming out of Charleston.
“It was genuine grief,” Floyd said. “It felt like Satan had seen us on our face before God and said, ‘I’ll show you’.
“But you showed the world what love is,” Floyd said, gesturing toward Thompson. “Love is God’s way to build bridges.
“Southern Baptists, you are not known by your creeds, songs, doctrine, knowledge, achievements, dress, appearance or color of your skin,” Floyd said. “You are only known by His love and His love through you.”
Living out the Gospel brings credibility to what the church believes, Floyd said.
“We need to live it out,” he said. “We need to stop letting our nation define who we are. Love is the one note of the true church.”
As an African American and a Southern Baptist, Strickland admitted to being “confounded at what to say … in this building filled with a number of Southern Baptists, with our thorny past marked by the affirmation of slavery that sends reverberations into the present day.”
Strickland, SBTS associate vice president for Kingdom Diversity Initiatives, praised the host church.
“Emanuel has not allowed foiled slave revolts, arson or a massacre to thwart a vision for making Christ known and hastening the coming of His kingdom,” Strickland said.
While Christians “lament any vestiges of brokenness that sin has forged in our lives and in our country,” Strickland said, “we are stubborn, and we have a tendency to push away from God’s design of being unified in our diversity, and away from each other because of cultural unease, historical baggage or personal preferences.”
Strickland offered hope found in Revelation 7:9-10.
“John’s vision does not function solely as a window into ‘the sweet by and by,'” Strickland said. “It is to call God’s people to live lives as those who actively are trying to manifest the riches of the Kingdom in the present.”
Building bridges across racial lines is “perhaps the premier litmus test” for spiritual maturity, Strickland said, and indicates an ability to stand on the power of the Gospel.
“We look to Jesus plus something else to bind us together, even amongst believers,” he said. “But any time we add something to Christ for the purpose of unity, that thing takes the Gospel captive. Perhaps we have not been able to come together because we are not as spiritually mature as we think we are.”
The work involved in reconciling racially makes us more like Jesus, Strickland said. Jesus’ work on the cross wrought victory over not only sin and death, Strickland said, but also over racism, bias, prejudice, bigotry, narrow-mindedness and discrimination.
“In our efforts to do His will now, it is not about achieving the goal, but about the work that is done on us in the process,” Strickland said. “This is why we talk about diversity. This is why we talk about racial reconciliation. … It’s because it forces us to become like our Savior.”
All people need to be forgiven, said Thompson, pastor of Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church in Charleston, to relieve the burden of sin borne by humanity.
“Sin is a disease that eats at the hearts of all mankind. It is hatred, it is racism, it is discrimination, it is violence,” he said. “It causes divisions, it causes separation in our lives, in our families’ lives, our communities, our nation, and our church.”
Thompson then told the story of how he publicly — and unexpectedly, even for himself — forgave his wife’s killer at a bond hearing. God empowered Thompson to forgive, the widower told South Carolina Baptists.
“I felt the bitterness, I felt the loneliness of everything I felt about my wife and all that’s going on actually leaving my body,” Thompson said. “I felt this peace like none ever. I was light as a feather, and I realized that was the peace that passes all understanding.”
Past slavery, racism, discrimination and separation are unchangeable, Thompson said, but the future allows progress.
“Only forgiveness can bring about healing in your life,” Thompson said. “And it trickles on downhill to the life of your family, your church, your community, and then it trickles right into the nation.
“And I know, because one day I had to forgive Dylann Roof, the young man who killed my wife and eight other people right here at Emanuel AME Church.”