Like most of you, I was shocked and saddened last week when I woke up to the news of the shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston South Carolina. Nine worshipers were shot and killed by an evil young man following a Wednesday night church service.
Unfortunately, we live in an age when incidents of mass violence seem far too common. In some sense, I think we are all guilty of being desensitized to things like this. But this time, it seemed to pierce all of us deep in our heart. We were shocked by the pure evil of someone walking into a church, the house of God, and shooting down folks how were doing nothing more egregious than attending services. And just when we thought it could not get much worse, it did. When they arrested the shooter, he told the authorities details about what happened. It turns out that he didn’t just walk in to the church and open fire. He actually attended the service and then started shooting when it was over. He worshiped, with them, prayed with them and then shot them. Oh, and he told the police that he actually reconsidered his plan, “because everyone was so nice to him”. That takes a special kind of evil.
I cannot imagine the grief and sense of loss of losing a loved one that way. Most of us would be, justifiably, angry and seeking not just justice, but revenge. But, when the shooter was arrested a few days later and made his initial court appearance, which was carried on live TV, Something totally unexpected, and a little shocking, happened. It was a simple bail hearing, with the foregone conclusion that he would be held without bail in the murder charges. No one really expected to hear from the victim’s families, but under South Carolina law, victims or the victim’s family may make a statement at the bail hearing.
When that time came, the families rose to speak. Predictably, they spoke of their loved ones and the lives lost, as well as their grief. But then, one by one, they said something totally unpredicted. They told the accused shooter “We forgive you.. and we are praying for you.” Whoa. I don’t think anybody saw that coming.
Most of the media types covering the story were totally blindsided by that. For people who make their living talking about stuff, they seemed to be speechless. They seemed to be unable to comprehend how folks who had just suffered such losses could talk of forgiveness and offer compassion. Then one of the commentators said something I found both succinct and profound:
“Well, you have to understand, these are Wednesday night church people.”
Wednesday night church people. Four words that seem to say a lot. Some of you may not be familiar with what that means, but if you were raised around the Southern protestant/evangelical, it says a lot. For southern Baptists, Methodist, Pentecostals and other denominations, Wednesday night church was a big deal. I can remember growing up in my parents house and never missing church on Wednesday night.
It is called different things in different places. Prayer Meeting. Wednesday Night Bible Study. Mid-week Services. Whatever you called it, it was pretty much the same thing. A more laid back experience than Sunday services. Wednesday night services were usually less well attended that Sunday morning, which provided the opportunity for a closer, more intimate experience to fellowship with other believers. It almost always involved a short Bible study, then taking time to tend to the prayer needs in the church; to pray for those who were sick, had lost loved ones or who were going through a hard time, whatever the reason. Wednesday night church people seemed to be the most faithful among the faithful. They came because they took seriously the Biblical admonition about “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another” . They came because a week is to long to go without coming to services. They came because they were the kind of people who were there every time the church doors were open. They came because there were other who needed someone to pray for them. They were those kind of people.
Unfortunately, Wednesday night church is not what it used to be. Attendance is down People are busy. Some churches don’t even have Wednesday night services anymore. But at the Emanuel AME Church last week, those who died were there, like they were every Wednesday. Because they were Wednesday night church people. And it appears that their family members where Wednesday night church people too
They are followers of The Lord. People who are willing to show forgiveness and compassion, even when it is difficult. People who strive to be Christ like. People who understand his example of love and forgiveness. For folks like that, it comes down to a simple question: “what would Jesus do?”. Maybe more of us should ask that question sooner, rather than later.
Another thing that has been interesting to me over the past week is the response of the people of Charleston and how they have acted over the past week. While we have seen racially charges situations lead to rioting, looting and arson in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, there has been none of that in Charleston. In a city in the heart of the Old South, we have not seen riots. We have seen people, both black and white, coming together. They have mourned together. They have prayed together. They have worshiped together. They have sought common ground. They have showed compassion for each other.
Maybe they understand what it means to be Wednesday night church people too.