Hundreds congregated Thursday night at the Mother Bethel AME in Society Hill to mourn the loss of nine African-Americans gunned down Wednesday during Bible study at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
One of those slain was Mother Bethel Pastor Mark Tyler’s friend and fellow AME pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
The mass murder is a bitter blow to his denomination and to anyone who seeks “sanctuary from the real world” in a house of worship, Tyler said.
Before Thursday’s interfaith gathering Thursday evening, Tyler spoke with WHYY/Newsworks about his friend, his faith, and the lessons he’ll take and share from Wednesday’s senseless murders.
Q: Tell us what you can about the late Rev. Pinckney and the church that has suffered this terrible blow.
This was very personal. I know the pastor well. I know his congregation, and have been in it several times. Even beyond all the other things that go with this story, first and foremost this is losing a friend and a colleague.
My heart went out immediately to his family, and to the congregation, and to all the AME members in South Carolina. It’s the state with the most AME members in the entire country. So this is a blow, not just to a congregation but to an entire denomination on five continents and almost 40 countries.
Q: Tell us about Rev. Pinckney’s spiritual mission, and the kinds of lessons he tried to share with his congregants. What kind of world was he trying to create? What was attacked when he was attacked?
Rev. Pinckney really stood in that long line of prophetic preachers who go back to our founder, Bishop Richard Allen, a native of Philadelphia, and was seen again with Martin Luther King Jr., who phrased it as “a beloved community.”
I think that’s the kind of world that Rev. Pinckney was trying to create, whether as a pastor or a person in the community. He had a real vision for a community that was just and fair for everyone, and had opportunity for everyone. And he used that position to bring that forward. He really had a big heart, and had really done so much at such a young age, that many people could live two or three lifetimes and never accomplish what he did.
Q: A particularly grim part of this story is that the suspect, who was white, spent a good hour in the church before opening fire. Would he have been an unusual sight in a predominantly African-American church? Looking back, should his presence have raised suspicion?
At a typical African-American church, in a neighborhood surrounded by African-Americans, his presence might have been unusual.
But Mother Emanuel is a lot like Mother Bethel. These are gentrified neighborhoods that at one time were predominantly African-American, and have now turned over and become predominantly white. It’s not unusual at these type of churches for white visitors to drop in — they hear the music, they see the lights on. So many of us take for granted that we’re going to have people that you don’t know.
It just shows Rev. Pinckney’s trusting nature. Some people may have overscrutinized and even put this person out. But he had a very trusting nature.
Q: As a pastor, you’re in the business of looking for the best in people, and in encouraging them to stay positive and look for ways to make the world a better place. What’s your message to such people in the wake of such a killing? How do you encourage congregants to keep up both their spiritual and their civic faith?
Initially, you have to give people permission to grieve. It’s a very painful experience, not just for people of AMEs, but people of faith in general. Whether you’re Jewish, Muslim, Catholic or Protestant, most people of faith have a general idea that when you go in to worship in your sacred place, that it is truly a sanctuary from the rest of the world. When that’s violated in one place, it’s violated everywhere.
So part of this is, once people get beyond the grieving, we have to focus on our ultimate hope. Tragedy comes to the faithful, as well as those of no faith. So I think our message must be that in the midst of tragedy, we have to look to God as our source and our strength.
Emanuel Church, ironically, is named for the biblical word that means “God with us.” So my message to my members is not to forget that God is with us, even in the face of horrific cases such as this.
Q: As a practical matter, do you worry that something like this could happen here? Does this tell you that churches need to take steps to be more secure?
Obviously we’re always concerned with the safety of people who visit. When you’re an open facility, you have to take people’s security seriously. We’ve done what we can do here; we recently went through a major upgrade on our security protocols, and I think that Mother Bethel is pretty secure.
But I would also say in this particular case, if what they’re saying is true, and this person was actually let in the building, and said he was what he was not — short of taking people through scanners like you would at the airport, searching and patting them down, there would have been no way of knowing that person was armed.
So should churches get to that point where they’re scanning people? I don’t know if I’m willing to go there just yet. At a certain point that begins to take away what faith is about. Yes, we’re cautious. Yes, we take what steps we can. But we also live in a world where we recognize that God is ultimately in control — this is the crux of our faith.
Q: We understand you’ll be hosting a vigil tonight at 7 at Mother Bethel AME (419 S. Sixth St., Philadelphia). Anything people should know?
The important thing is that it is an interfaith gathering. We want to stress that — this for all persons of faith, not just the Christian community.
Q: Should those who come bring candles?
No, no. Let me tell you, man, this is an old, historic building. We don’t do candles in here!