By Rick Wolcott*
“We stand here tonight amongst racial prejudices, hate, and those that have decided not to love, to bring about some love in this place,” said the Rev. Hilton Smith. “America is in need of a love transfusion.”
Smith, president of the Cleveland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Rev. Dr. Ken Chalker of University Circle United Methodist Church (North Coast District) organized the June 23 Service of Memorial and Solidarity Against Racism in response to the fatal shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, SC.
“We stand here tonight to say that love conquers all,” the Rev. Smith said.
U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Ohio, Steve Dettelbach, brought greetings on behalf of President Barack Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch before stating, “this week we are all AME.”
Rev. Charles Lucas of St. James AME in Cleveland shared with those gathered that he had previously preached at “the mother church” Emanuel. On the night of the shooting he learned that the mother, two nephews and two cousins of one of his St. James’ parishioners had been in the church when shots rang out.
Commenting to those who have asked in hindsight why the prayer group at Emanuel had welcomed in the stranger who would later take their lives Smith said, “You don’t understand the church. Right now the doors are open as wide as they can be, anyone can walk in. We want you there.”
As the service continued, a bell was rung as the Rev. Dr. Chalker read the names of those killed.
“These nine individuals – in a spirit of giving – opened their hearts and their church to a stranger,” said Peggy Zone Fisher, executive director of The Diversity Center. “As a nation mourns the loss of these individuals we must remain vigilant in the fight for social justice. In the lives lost we must find hope in humanity.”
The service featured moving music and expressive dance, and was punctuated by powerful, challenging words.
“All is not well. We are not healed,” said Julia Shearson. The executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) finished that thought by stating, “This is a reminder that all is not right, all is not just and that we have work, much, much work to do.”
Rev. Dr. Chalker echoed that sentiment when reflecting on a point made by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. early in his August 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. He told those seated in the pews that King had said, “we must storm the battlements of injustice with a biracial army.”
“That portion of Dr. King’s dream is still a bigger dream than it is a reality,” Chalker said. “I am grateful for all of us who have gathered this afternoon as a biracial army to storm the battlements of injustice.”
Storming and reflecting were also on the mind of Community Relations Board member Yvonne Pointer, who brought greetings from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who was unable to attend the service.
She said she was reminded of a game she played as a child. In Red Rover one participant would call out “Red Rover, Red Rover let (insert name) come over.” That person would then run at a line of friends, whose hands were joined, with the intent of breaking the bond between them and penetrating the line.
She asked those attending the service to join hands and to hold each other tight. She then called out “Red Rover, Red Rover let hatred come over,” to which all in the sanctuary shouted on cue, “not on our watch are you going to break on through tonight.”
“Today we renew our efforts to work together, from different faith traditions, from different racial and ethnic groups, from different parts of the city to say that we won’t stand and let racism take the lives of innocent people,” the Rev. Dr. Steve Bailey, district superintendent of the North Coast District, said in his benediction. “We are united, and a new day is coming. And in the spirit of the One who created us all we leave here now not to finish anything but to begin anew with joy and love in hearts.”
As the service concluded, We Shall Overcome played in the background as hugs, tears, smiles, and love filled the sanctuary.
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.