Sometimes in our worst nightmares we see a playground with children playing happily when some unspeakable horror strikes. The purity, the innocence, the delight and joy of childhood and all that it means is deeply violated by some unseen character waiting there on the playground, ready to do what should never be done anywhere, much less on a playground.
This has been our national nightmare this week. The playground was Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. The people of this community were gathered into their sanctuary, into their holy playground, and their play was bible study and prayer. They welcomed into their playground an unknown young man like they did anyone else. They had become clear a long time ago that the rules of entrance to their playground allowed anyone who wished to come and play. This young man, a welcomed visitor for nearly an hour–almost brought to repent of his goal by the kindness of the community–became the terrorist on the playground. He killed nine good souls who had truly learned the art of play.
The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41: A state senator and the senior pastor of Emanuel, he was married to Jennifer Benjamin and the father of two children, Eliana and Malana. Long a beacon of justice, he served in the state Legislature starting in 2000; black fabric was draped over Pinckney’s Senate chamber seat on Thursday.
Cynthia Hurd, 54: According to the Charleston County Public Library, she was a 31-year employee who managed the John L. Dart Library for 21 years before heading the St. Andrews Regional Library. A statement said Hurd “dedicated her life to serving and improving the lives of others.”
The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45: A pastor at Emanuel, she was also a speech therapist and high school girls track and field coach, both positions at Goose Creek High School. Her principal called her “a true professional … [who] cared about her students and was an advocate for them.” Her son, Chris Singleton, is a baseball player and student at Charleston Southern University. Coleman-Singleton also had two younger children.
Tywanza Sanders, 26: He was a 2014 graduate in business administration from Allen University in Columbia. Lady June Cole, the interim president of Allen University, described him as “a quiet, well-known student who was committed to his education.”
Ethel Lance, 70: She had attended Emanuel for most of her life and worked there as a custodian, as well. From 1968 to 2002, she worked as a custodian at Charleston’s Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. “She was funny and a pleasure to be around. And she was a wonderful mother and grandmother.”
Susie Jackson, 87: Lance’s cousin, she was a longtime church member. She was the matriarch of the family and among the matriarchs of her beloved church. She attended “Mother” Emanuel AME Church regularly, showing up for Sunday worship services, of course, but also for Bible studies on Wednesday nights. She was a trustee of the church and once a member of the choir.
Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49: The mother of four sang in Emanuel’s choir. She had previously directed a community development program in Charleston County. In December, she started a new job as an admissions coordinator at the Charleston campus of Southern Wesleyan University.
The Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74: Simmons survived the initial attack but then died in a hospital operating room. He had previously been a pastor at another church in the Charleston area.
Myra Thompson, 59: She was the wife of the Rev. Anthony Thompson, the vicar of Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church in Charleston.*
Even these briefest of memorials of The Nine become for us beacons of light in this national darkness. We have much to tend to in the coming days, months and years. We do not yet know how to welcome all peoples into “our” playgrounds especially around the issue of race. We have not become clear about what is safe and what is not safe around the issue of guns in our society. We do not hear well the language that we use automatically around the evils and ills of our society. Our national and cultural playgrounds are, today, a disaster, a crime scene, the aftermath of domestic terrorism, and even as we weep and double over in personal and collective pain, we have much, much work to do. Our courage is much invoked here. Our curiosity is deeply required. Our compassion–oh our compassion is our very next step. To whom can we show compassion? The real and pressing question is: to whom do we not yet show compassion? These three, for us at least locally, form the gateway forward for us: courage, curiosity and compassion.
This 21-year old terror maker had brought “rules” to this sacred playground that were foreign and unknown here. With his gun he has blasted open a wound in the soul of this nation that will not be quick to heal. As we look to the lives, the memories and the extraordinary examples of The Nine, let us hold this man in the light. He has desecrated our playground, but we must play again. His cannot be the last act in our national playground.