Written on Friday
I am driving from Jacksonville, FL to Columbia, SC today. I woke up at a L’Arche community where I have been surrounded by good people who are doing God’s work. Yesterday, a conversation with Liz, the Exec. Director of Catholic Volunteers in Florida taught me that we must put our physical bodies in particular places sometimes-to be witnesses. Her wisdom and God’s nudging showed me that I must go to Charleston today. I am going there to bear witness to the lives of the people killed there on Wednesday. Just as a pilgrim carries others’ intentions with them, I will carry your intentions with me. Write your prayers here and I will read these as I walk from my car to the makeshift memorial at the AME Zion Church.
Written on Saturday
I drove the 3 ½ hours from Jacksonville. At the SC welcome center, I got a map of Charleston and asked an employee to point out the location of the church. She circled the incorrect street and walked away from me, maybe thinking I was up to no good. I gps’ed myself to an address a few blocks from the church and found a parking lot. I got out, filled the vase with water from the water bottles I had filled at L’Arche and, map in hand, walked toward the church. I went past the street the first time, ending up on a street near the College of Charleston which was blocked off, perhaps as a place for people to gather as a crowd. A policeman directed me to the right street so I turned around and walked the same sidewalk I had just come down. I had seen historic photos of the church from the internet and it was as grand as the photos with a huge double staircase out front. They had a banner up to generate interest and donations for an elevator project, a scaffold tower to the right of the church, presumably to make it accessible to elders and those in wheelchairs. Another banner across the street read that elder abuse is a crime.
There were about 100 people gathered there in front of the church. About 40 of them were cameramen with video cameras, photographers with regular cameras, reporters with microphones or reporters with notebooks. The street outside was not blocked off so traffic freely passed by, meaning that the people were confined to the sidewalk. I assume this is an intentional decision for crowd control as I’ve seen it done in NYC when lots of celebrities were going into a building. I assumed reporters would be off to the side, indiscreet, observing the events. Instead, they were as much a part of the “story” as anybody. They were making the story too, mostly by being in people’s way. Of the 60 other people (I was there from 6:30-7:30 on Friday), most had their camera phones out, snapping a photo. Many laid flowers and I added “our” vase of flowers to about 200 which were leaning against the wrought-iron fence. I saw a guy with a poignant shirt that said, “Now Do You Believe Us?” Someone had left water bottles in bins for whoever needed them. It was about 100 degrees out. Some lively discussions were happening among strangers, some cell phone calls were made by reporters to people back at HQ, another reporter was practicing his simple lines again and again into the camera. There was no “center of gravity” in the time I was there, simply people coming to look, to lay flowers, to walk on. I found a spot on a curb to sit for a few minutes and offered up all of our prayers and the intentions written by friends and family earlier in the day. A phrase that came to mind for me was “Interrupt Racism” which I think means not even letting someone tell the punchline of a racist joke or finish their sentence when they are saying something racist. Don’t wait to react afterwards, interrupt it while it is going on. No reason to be polite.
After a time with the crowd outside the church, I started walking back to my car to resume my drive to Columbia. I noticed a playground outside the church and took some time to look at it and think about it. There are 3 trikes parked in it and fun-looking equipment. There is a canister of bubbles at the entrance at a height for adults to grab as they are going in there with kids, to delight them with the universally-appealing, smiling-making magic of bubbles. I cut through the parking lot next door, past black suv with D.C. plates, past numerous news vans and camera men dealing with equipment. I walked around to the back side of the church and saw someone on a little dais speaking to a camera. A large bouncer looking man was alongside her and I caught his eye and gave him a nod and he returned my nod. I continued to the wrought iron fence surrounding the back of the church. In the parking lot, I counted 7 cars all with SC plates. I wondered if those belonged to the deceased. I prayed for a few momenta few minutes, holding on to the fence. That was a poignant moment, to imagine people gathering for their weekly bible study, with grocery lists in their heads, worrying about loved ones, looking at the clock on the dash and everything else that goes on as you pull into a familiar parking spot. I saw a person with an FBI shirt exit the basement of the church with a tool bag, saw a surveyor’s tripod set up in the parking lot with a tool box, a cop car blocking the entrance to the parking lot. There was a bouquet of red plastic flowers on the ground so I arranged them on the fence so they would be upright. A honking horn made me turn around. A lady in a big SUV stopped to get out and address a guy that walked by carrying a cross on wheels. I overheard her tell him that she’s seen him doing that all over Charleston for years and she gave him a hug. I didn’t hear everything she said and I walked toward them but they walked their separate ways before I got there so I realized it was not my moment to share with them-it was theirs. I continued with my momentum of walking away from the area back to my car. These are the things I saw there and these are some of the things I thought about. The only “advice” I want to share is that when a tragedy happens, it is worth our time to send flowers and cards. Local florists will know where to deliver them. It sends a message of support and the more flowers piled up, the better. As I said, there were about 200 bunches of flowers there.