Talk to African-American pastors for any time at all -- as a journalist -- and you will almost certainly hear a common theme emerge.
Many of these preachers and civic leaders are tired of having their work and ministry reduced to political language. In particular, they are fascinated that reporters seem so afraid of specific words that are repeated over and over in worship in their churches, words such as "Jesus," "Lord," "Redeemer" and "Savior."
So if you want to understand where these preachers are coming from, watch the sermon at the top of this post -- start about 9 minutes in -- and then dig into some of the national news coverage. In particular, look for the phrase "in the name of Jesus." Cue up the key passages at 15 minutes and, again, near the end at the 25-minute mark.
So I was worried when I opened up the New York Times report this morning on the first service at Emanuel African American Episcopal Church and read this passage:
In the front pews of Emanuel, Nikki R. Haley, the Indian-American Republican governor of this state, sat among Democrats -- Representative Maxine Waters of California, who is black, and Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, who is white -- and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is black and a fellow Republican. In the back of the church, an unlikely pairing sat next to each other -- Rick Santorum, the conservative Catholic and Republican presidential hopeful, and DeRay McKesson, a liberal activist who is black and gay.
The service beneath Emanuel’s vaulted barrel roof opened with an emotional hymn as nearly the entire congregation stood and sang, “You are the source of my strength, you are the strength of my life,” rounded out with a big “Amen” that was followed by a standing ovation.
You see, the name of that Gospel song in the second paragraph -- after the inevitable (and necessary) litany of political names -- is "Total Praise" and the key lyrics, as commonly used in worship, go like this:
Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hills
Knowing my help is coming from You
Your peace you give me in time of the storm
You are the source of my strength
You are the strength of my life
I lift my hands in total praise to you. Amen.
It helps, in other words, to know to whom the word "You" -- upper-case "Y," in this case -- refers in this song.
Thus, I lowered my expectations as I read. Please understand: I know that the political and civic content of this event must be covered. I know that is crucial material in this news story. I am simply asking: What were the key moments of this sermon for the preacher who was delivering it and to the people who heard it? What was the "Big Idea" of this sermon?
I was pleased, however, that the Times report did not ignore the Gospel language altogether. Some of the sermon's heart made it into print:
In the opening prayer, the Rev. John H. Gillison said that while people were still asking why, “those of us who know Jesus, we can look through the window of our faith, and we see hope, we see light.”
He later reflected on the nine who had died.
“There they were in the house of the Lord, studying your word, praying with one another,” he said. “But the devil also entered, and the devil was trying to take charge. Thanks be to God the devil cannot take control of your people. The devil cannot take control of your church.”
The Times also hinted, at least, at another key fact on the ground in South Carolina. There have been major changes in the region's churches in recent years, in terms of racial reconciliation. In particular, journalists needed to visit the region's Pentecostal and charismatic congregations, which are much more likely to be racially mixed, both in the pews and sometimes in their pulpits. The story did contain this interesting, and relevant, material on the nation's largest Protestant body:
In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention, of which Citadel Baptist is affiliated, issued a “Resolution on Racial Reconciliation” on its 150th anniversary. The document said Southern Baptists’ relationship with blacks had been “hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played” in the group’s formation, and acknowledged that many Southern Baptists had defended slavery and failed to support civil rights.
All in all, this story ended up lacking a certain fierce, biblical edge that was present in this historic service. But it was, frankly, way better than I expected.
Read the New York Times report and then click here to contrast it with the almost completely political offering sent out by Religion News Service. My question: Was this a worship service or a rally?
In an energetic and emotional service, the Rev. Norvel Goff assured those gathered that the victims, including the church’s pastor and state senator the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, did not die in vain. Others echoed that sentiment saying that while the city is preparing for funeral services, calls for reforms and social activism would also follow.
“We still believe that prayer changes things. Can I get a witness?” the Rev. Norvel Goff said. The congregation, swelled with government and community leaders and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and her family, responded with a rousing “Yes.”
“We’re going to be vigilant,” Goff said as churchgoers swayed and clapped in response. “The blood of the Mother Emanuel nine requires us to work until not only justice in this case but for those living in the margin of life, those less fortunate than ourselves, that we stay on the battlefield until there’s no more fight to be fought.”
As I said, that is a key and essential element of this story. But, yes, where is the Gospel that was preached from that pulpit and shouted in those pews?