One of my good friends who is a recent divinity school graduate says this all the time. He says it when he fumbles over his words, he says it when he feels like his world is ending. Lord help, he cries out in his perfect Southern accent, and it brings him comfort.
After this week’s news cycle, specifically after the horrible act of domestic terrorism in Charleston, that phrase has been on my tongue all day.
Nine Black people were murdered Wednesday night by a white terrorist in their house of worship. These people gathered for Bible study and prayer, one of the most intimate and vulnerable gatherings in the Black church where we’re encouraged to ask questions, to lay down our burdens, to lean on each other as we grapple with life’s difficulties, and be affirmed by one another. This man showed up to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, sat and prayed with its members, and then opened fire and killed nine of them.
Contextually, this attack on a Black church, and the choice this killer made to attack an AME church at that, doesn’t surprise me at all. The AME church was founded by freed slaves who were pulled off their knees while praying by white supremacists disguised as Christians. This particular church had a history of rebellion, specifically a slave rebellion in 1822. These weren’t good negroes. These were — and are — the Black people that said, “I am a person and demand to be treated that way.” Before there was a hashtag, the Black Church was one of the first institutions to say that Black lives matter.
So when this man made this decision, it was deliberate. When police come into Black communities and harass and kill us, it is deliberate. These people make the decision to come into places where we feel safe, where we feel protected, where we feel like our lives do matter, and remind us that in their eyes they don’t. I think there’s something particularly awful about attacking a place of worship. I’ve been thinking about the fact that he didn’t just walk in there and start shooting. These members, who have a history of being denied the opportunity to worship freely didn’t want to do the same to this man — and so they let him in. I can almost imagine the scene: a deacon might’ve walked up to him and offered to shake his hand, a little girl maybe stared at him over her mother’s shoulder, a teen who had been dragged to church that night might’ve been sitting across from him in the back. This man experienced these people in community, saw them healing and uplifting each other, and still decided to commit an act of terrorism.
I think it’s so important that we keep saying Black Lives Matter, especially after an event like this. After a trauma like this it’s easy to wonder if my life really does matter, particularly when this man was able to leave the scene of the crime alive, be captured alive, and transported in a bullet-proof jacket to make sure he stayed alive. But that’s exactly what white supremacy wants me to do: to question my worth. Now more than ever, I think it’s important to say alabanza to those who were slain, to lift their names up in prayer and to remind those of us still living that Black lives do matter — they’ve always mattered and will always matter.
As a Black queer Christian, I’m hurting today. I grew up worshiping in a Black church, and it was one of the few places where I felt truly safe. An intergenerational environment in the best sense of the word, I was constantly surrounded by black children, youth, adults, and elders all growing in faith together. There was always someone there to make me laugh, to chastise me, to hold me when I was hurting. I didn’t just go to church to learn about being a Christian, I went to learn about being Black. These were people who, for the most part, also had to navigate growing up Black in Connecticut. In a time when I was seeing an average of five other Black people in any given day at school, they helped me to form a Black identity. Going to church was like getting to with 100 members of my immediate family. Even once I publicly came out as queer and we disagreed with one another, I knew that my church family would always love and protect me.
So when I think about someone coming into these people’s home, murdering 9 of them, and saying (allegedly), “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,” I am devastated. My first reaction to the shooting was that it’s all so familiar. All I could think of was the bombing of the 16th Street a Baptist Church where four little girls died. “Haven’t we been here before?” I thought; and particularly so after this week’s wild news cycle, “Why do they hate us so much?” One of the strongest emotions on my heart has been anger — a hateful, vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord, Old Testament God anger.
But loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek are two of the most prevalent tenets of Christianity. The religion is literally founded on love and acceptance (despite what conservatives will have you think). Jesus hung out with prostitutes and prayed for his murderers as he hung to die. But I am so angry, that the idea of forgiveness feels impossible.
Then I remember the history of the Black Church. I remember how my great-great-great grandparents were forced to gather to worship in secret because they were slaves. I think about how racists would harass and terrorize patrons of Black churches in the ’60s. And then I think about how despite all of that we would still gather, still study, still pray, still worship.
I remember all of the praying aunties, mothers, and grandmothers in my home churches as a child who cried out to God when their children were shot unjustly. When instead of being vengeful they prayed that God would save the souls of those who stole their babies from them, just like Jesus did. And I think about my mother who in the same breath that she said she was praying for the victims’ families also said she was praying for the shooter. She will forever be a better Christian than me. I think about all of my fellow queer Black Christians who have often been excluded from worship and who still forgive. And I want to be like these people; I want to be a “good Christian” more than anything, but I am hurting so much that all I can process is my anger.
Because anger is so much easier than asking for help or trying to learn forgiveness. When I was a baby queer of 16, my anger consumed me, especially in the church. I had always thought it was okay to question things I’d read in the Bible and was encouraged to in Sunday school and youth group. But suddenly when my questions started to revolve around sexuality, people didn’t want to hear them. Or, when they did listen, the answers I got were unsatisfactory. If Jesus loved sinners, why wouldn’t He love me? I wasn’t doing anything except trying to live my truth. Wasn’t I supposed to tell the truth? I was confused and hurt, and it came out as anger. I remember praying and crying in my room wondering what kind of God would make me this way and then condemn me to hell. I remember wrestling with the comfort that the Church had always provided me — I was raised there; I’d taken more naps on church pews than on cots at school — against this seemingly new hostility. It was like everything I had been taught about unconditional love, kindness, and justice didn’t get to be true for me anymore, and I felt like I didn’t have a place where I belonged.
It wasn’t until I asked for help that I was able to find comfort in the church again. That comfort came from my family of ordained ministers who assured me that I was still loved in the eyes of God and it came from God too, in the understanding that the Church is made up of people, and that people disagree, and that sometimes, people are wrong. My relationship with my church and my faith changed after that, but it’s all been good change. Asking questions and asking for help has, I think, allowed me to become more Christlike. I mean, even Jesus trashed a temple in his anger. Even Jesus asked God, “why me?” Coming out as queer helped solidify my Christian beliefs because now I knew that the God I worshiped wanted me to be free to explore my faith, my sexuality, and more recently my gender identity and that help was just a call away.
Today, whenever I need to, I cry “Lord, help” — on the city bus, at work, in the library, crying in my bed while I’m writing this, when all I can think to say is, “Lord, help,” I know that’s enough.
I’m realizing that that’s the first step. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble,” David writes in Psalms. I’m not going to heal from my hurt on my own, and without healing, forgiveness is almost impossible. The Black Church isn’t going to heal from this tragedy on its own; I believe that it’s through the collective power of community and holding each other up in prayer that we’ll be able to continue on. I don’t believe in a theology that says God makes bad things happen to us in order for us to become better Christians, but I do believe that through the Church, and in my case the Black Church specifically, we have been given the tools to be able to heal ourselves and each other.
The United Church of Christ released a prayer for Emanuel AME Church yesterday on their Facebook. The prayer ends with, “You whose shepherd has been taken from you, whose building has become a tomb, whose children are terrified: We stand with you. We weep with you. We rage for you. We keep vigil with you for your beloved dead. May the God of Moses and Miriam, of Jesus and the Marys, anoint you with healing, furnish you with hope, and one day, some day, mend your broken hearts and wipe the tears from your swollen eyes. God help us.” This is a prayer of a people who are hurting, who are screaming, who are so confused and angry saying in one voice, “Lord, help.” Because what else can we do?
Lord help the family of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Lord help the family of Clementa Pinckney
Lord help the family of Cynthia Hurd
Lord help the family of Tywanza Sanders
Lord help the family of Myra Thompson
Lord help the family of Ethel Lee Lance
Lord help the family of Daniel L. Simmons
Lord help the family of Depayne Middleton-Doctor
Lord help the family of Susie Jackson
Lord, help us all.