by Paul Bowers
When President Barack Obama came to town for the Rev. Sen. Clementa Pinckney's funeral, he capped off a memorial service that was a mix of the spiritual and the political, the personal and the universal. (Watch the video below.)
Bishop John Richard Bryant, a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church from Baltimore, placed the tragedy in the context of the denomination's history, which has long been intertwined with politics and protest.
"Historically, we are the stones that the builders rejected," Bryant said, "but we keep rising."
Bryant also spoke of the church's forgiveness, as exemplified in the family members of the Mother Emanuel Nine who, less than 48 hours after the mass shooting on June 17, stood in court and told the alleged gunman Dylann Roof that they forgave him.
"Others, taking it personally, cannot understand why they have not viewed more anger and bitterness as a result of the blow we have taken. It's because of who we hang out with," Bryant said. "Our secret is in our Lord. Can I call his name? His name is Jesus. Someone should have told the young man, if he wanted to start a race war, he came to the wrong place."
Forgiveness was one theme of the hours-long service in TD Arena, particularly during President Obama's eulogy, which concluded with the president leading the packed coliseum in singing "Amazing Grace."
"Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Rev. Pinckney and that Bible study group, the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle," Obama said. "The alleged killer could never have anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court in the midst of unspeakable grief with words of forgiveness. He could not imagine that.
"He could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley, how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond not merely with repulsion at his evil act, but with generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life. Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Rev. Pinckney so well understood."
Speakers mentioned the possible removal of the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds early in the program, referring to a political movement more than a decade in the making that finally gained widespread bipartisan support after the shooting at Emanuel AME Church. Obama said in his eulogy that removing the flag would be "one step in an honest accounting of American history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds."
Pinckney's colleagues in the AME Church and in the state Senate praised him for his political efforts, including his calls to expand Medicaid coverage in South Carolina, to increase access to HIV/AIDS medication, to change lending policies to prevent what he called "usury," to increase education funding along the so-called Corridor of Shame, and to prevent the implementation of voter ID laws.
"His voice always had its greatest impact when it was used for the voiceless," said Sen. Gerald Malloy (D-Darlington).
As a Democrat in a heavily red state, Pinckney fought some losing political battles. "His calls for greater equity were too often unheeded," Obama said. "The votes he cast were sometimes lonely."
Friends, family, and church leaders also remembered Pinckney for his work at Emanuel AME, where he had served as pastor since 2010, from instituting an annual health fair to renovating parsonage properties to calling for an elevator to be installed for elderly congregants to reach the sanctuary.
"When we are found apart, it gives us inward pain, but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again," said the Rev. George F. Flowers, executive director of global witness and ministry for the AME Church. "We will see you in the morning."