People of faith, in diversity and adversity

Dr. Bob Bushong, newly appointed superintendent of the Florida Conference East Central District, reflects on his visit to historic Emanuel AME Church in the aftermath of a shooting that left nine dead at a Bible study June 17.

I really believe I was inspired that evening. I had decided to divide my trip to Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, for a retreat with Bishop (Ken) Carter and the cabinet into two parts. I left home in Maitland about 5:30 Saturday evening. I would stop for the night whenever I felt ready to do so, worship the next morning, and drive the rest of the way on Sunday afternoon. 

Head and shoulders of Bob Bushong
Rev. Dr. Bob Bushong

As I was making my way up I-95 on the north side of Jacksonville, suddenly it occurred to me that I could spend the night in Charleston and worship at Emanuel AME Church the next morning. Here’s what I posted on Facebook after I was settled into a pew in the back of “Mother Emanuel’s” historic sanctuary about 8:30 Sunday morning for the 9:30 service:

Privileged to worship this morning at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The doors are open, the welcoming nature is pervasive, emotions are visible, and people of various ages and shades and backgrounds are eager to worship our God of healing and hope, of justice and love, of reconciliation and peace.

I’m still processing that experience in worship in Charleston on June 21, Father’s Day. One thing is clear to me: As the service progressed, it became more and more evident that the power and movement of God was the undergirding force in that room. At times I felt overwhelmed by it. 

Along with hundreds of others, I cried, I laughed, I felt sadness and anger, joy and hope. Together as a diverse community we listened and we sang and we clapped and we prayed in a time of sharing and grieving and healing inspired by the Spirit of Love that is the God whom we know most fully and completely through Jesus of Nazareth. 

A particular piece of the experience sticks in my mind, rooted in a statement made in the sermon preached by the Reverend Norvel Goff, Interim Pastor of Emanuel. He said, “A lot of people expected us to do something strange and to break out in a riot. Well, they just don’t know us. We are people of faith.” 

We are people of faith . . . and in that context understood at the end of that statement are the words “in Jesus Christ.” We are people of faith in Jesus Christ.

If you and I were together in person right now, I would ask you to repeat that statement with me: We are people of faith in Jesus Christ. Then I would ask you to say it with me again: We are people of faith in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps I would invite you to say it with me even a third time: We are people of faith in Jesus Christ. We are different in our thoughts and actions and reactions from what is normative in the surrounding culture:

  • We are filled and guided by the love of God to respond to the hurt and pain and tragedies of life in ways that are surprising, unexpected, even radical. 

  • We live daily with hearts that are filled with gratitude. 

  • Through all the twists and turns of this journey called life, we trust in God – in God’s goodness and mercy, in God’s sense of justice, and in the truth that God does indeed, as Paul reminds us in Romans 8, “work all things together for good for those who love God.”

Dylann Roof, the person who has confessed to shooting those nine people gathered for Bible study in a basement classroom at Emanuel AME Church the evening of Wednesday, June 17, said that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to me.”

When I read that statement, right away echoing in my mind were the words of Reverend Goff: We are people of faith. Dylann Roof sensed that there was something different about those folks from what he had expected. For a moment, at least, it disarmed him. It made him question what he was about to do. 

This past Wednesday evening, June 24, one week after that horrific event, about 150 people gathered for their weekly Bible study in the same room where the shooting had taken place. The theme of their study was “The Power of Love.” 

The story of what happened at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17 and its aftermath continues to unfold. What already has clearly emerged out of that experience, however, is the call to all of us who follow Jesus to proclaim boldly, not just with our words, but also through the ways in which we choose to live in response to all of life’s experiences, opportunities, and setbacks, We are people of faith in Jesus Christ.

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