What was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney's ultimate goal in life? What drove him to do what he did?
One thing is clear, early on, in the recent New York Times news feature on the slain pastor of the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church in the heart of Charleston, S.C. From the beginning, Pinckney was ambitious -- but saw his future through the lens of the church.
This figures into the simple, but touching, anecdote that opens the story. However, the story quickly takes this image and hides it behind a bigger vision -- Pinckney's work in politics showed that he was headed to "higher things."
Really now? Did the man himself see his calling in that way? Did he automatically assume that politics was a higher calling than the ordained ministry? Hold that thought. Here is how the story opens:
RIDGELAND, S.C. -- The morning worship had ended at St. John A.M.E. Church, and as Clementa Pinckney walked through the simple country sanctuary with its 10 rows of pews, he was startled to hear a disembodied voice. It was soft, almost whispery, and yet clearly audible. “Preach,” it said. “I have called you to preach the Gospel.”
He was only 13. But, in a story he often repeated, he discerned it to be the voice of God, and within months he stood before an audience of hundreds of African Methodist Episcopal pastors to present himself as a candidate for ministerial training. The bishop, the most powerful official in the state, asked what he hoped to become. The boy did not hesitate. “A humble bishop of the A.M.E. church,” he answered, with no hint of a smile.
“People were trying to keep a straight face,” said the Rev. John Paul Brown, then the pastor at St. John, remembering the group’s amusement at the youngster’s preternatural earnestness and ambition. “But the laughter could not be restrained.”
However, the boy became a man who felt called to work in political life, as well as in the pulpit. Which ambition defined his life and work?
Let's jump to the end of this piece for the big question:
At Emanuel, Mr. Pinckney bolstered the church’s aging membership with a renewed focus on youth programs. He quickly won over older members who feared he was too young or stretched too thin, at least partly by raising money to install an elevator so the infirm could worship in the sanctuary.
Mr. Pinckney’s friends and colleagues assumed he was destined for bigger things, whether in politics or the ministry or both. Some wondered whether he would eventually have to choose, and which way he might go.
That is a great question, of course, and an important one. But the story seems to be missing a crucial voice on these issues -- the voice of Pinckney himself. It is also interesting, of course, that the story assumes that (a) his political career was more important and (b) that his pastoral ministry was primarily important in terms of his social and even political impact. And one thing is for sure, "Jesus" is nowhere to be found in this story.
So there we are again, in the same old journalistic rut when it comes to coverage of the black church. As I wrote just the other day, talking about coverage of "Mother Emanuel" in Charleston:
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."
As expected, this portrait of Pinckney and his ministry is completely Jesus free.
But click on the video at the top of this post -- a speech that the Times cites as one of the most important moments in this man's career. Listen to it all or, at the very least, cue it up at 2:50 and listen as this preacher talks about his views of justice, starting with the story of Easter and directly linking his views to Christian faith.
Why does this story avoid the voice of the man in the middle of this drama? Perhaps he saw his calling as ministry, linked to the Gospel, even when he was in public life. What was his higher calling? That was between Pinckney and his Lord, in the end. This was, in the end, not going to be a political decision.