Mother Emanuel AME Church has been through more than you know, even if you’ve seen many of the news reports about the horrendous shootings of nine members there in June. But yesterday, the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier wisely concentrated on the first sermon of its new pastor.
It's a heartfelt, moody news feature that gets inside the thoughts and feelings of the pastor. But while reminding us of the terrible events that brought the church there, the newspaper somehow leaves out most of what her sermon said.
And that wasn't so wise. From reading the overture to this report, the sermon was supposed to be the main topic of the story. For starters, it has the Rev. Betty Deas Clark "trembling and scared" her first time in the pulpit at Emanuel:
She’d had less than 24 hours to prepare the first sermon she would deliver to her new congregation. She wrote from the heart but agonized over every word -- praying she would be able to minister to the needs of people she had yet to get to know.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling, addressing a congregation, but there was something different about this time. Maybe it was because members of Mother Emanuel were still healing after the June 17 slaying of nine worshippers during a Bible study by a self-proclaimed white supremacist. Maybe it was because the church had been in a type of “limbo” for more than half a year in the aftermath.
Either way, Clark knew there was one message everyone could relate to: hope.
"In my heart I felt that it was the right word," she said after the church service. "I did not want to dwell too heavily on the past, but I wanted to embrace the reality of the present and the future."
As one nitpick, we'll note that it doesn't say why Clark had less than 24 hours to prepare. The reason is that she was appointed just the previous day; that was explained on Saturday but not in this story. The main question here is: How did she develop the theme of hope? What did she offer to help the congregants move forward? One would assume that this sermon had something to do with a passage of two from the Bible?
Unfortunately, the Post and Courier doesn't say. From there, it reports some ceremonial good-byes from the Rev. Norvel Goff, who had been serving as interim pastor since the shootings (in which the previous pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was killed). He says the church has been through a lot of changes but it's doing better, he'll be visiting other churches but his prayers are with Emanuel, yada yada.
The article notes in passing the controversies during Goff's term at the helm of Emanuel Church: "questions about how the church, under Goff’s leadership, was handling millions of dollars in donations." In October, the newspaper accused him of mishandling funds not only at Emanuel, but also at AME churches in Columbia, S.C., and Rochester, N.Y.
It's just as well that the Post and Courier didn’t dwell on that. The October story filled 2,700 words, and the paper has run at least 11 other stories on the controversy -- and a column and an editorial -- since Sept. 21.
No, I'd rather read what yesterday's article promised: hope and encouragement in the first sermon by Emanuel's new pastor. But after the background on the shootings and on the Goff flap, it says only that Clark "subtly addressed the church’s recent tragedy":
"God feels our pain, hear’s our cries and he knows our every move," she said. "While the dreams, expectations and bodies of many have been laid to rest, we must not allow nor put our hope to rest. We must believe as a family in God (and) that our best days are in front of us. We must believe that better days are coming."
That's all? Now, granted, sermons often sound better than they read. I've covered messages by pastors and rabbis, gurus and archbishops, even the Dalai Lama. Each time, I've had to condense, paraphrase and tease out what I thought might interest the general public.
Remember, though, that the sermon of hope was the alleged theme of yesterday's Post and Courier story. And the message clearly had a positive effect on the congregation. The paper quotes three listeners who called it "wonderful," "excellent," "inspiring," even something Martin Luther King Jr. might say.
Sure, it's only words, as the Bee Gees said. But we should have read more of the words that the people at Emanuel Church found excellent and inspiring yesterday.
Photo: Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, S.C.; shot by Darryl Brooks / Shutterstock.com.