Bishop Edward Braxton knew he couldn’t visit Charleston and speak about the country’s racial divide without visiting Emanuel AME Church.
And so before his talks during the Black Catholics Heritage Celebration this weekend, Braxton, of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, reflected at the historic sanctuary where nine black worshipers were gunned down by a self-avowed white supremacist. He prayed for the victims and visited the fellowship hall where a barrage of bullets rang out last year. He wondered how a city with so many churches could become the site of such horror.
Braxton drew upon the response of the victims’ family members – which he praised as remarkable expressions of resilience and forgiveness – as he addressed a group of black Catholics from throughout the state who gathered Saturday at Embassy Suites Charleston Convention Center in North Charleston.
“Charleston is in a unique position to lead and guide other communities and other cities, both who have endured peril and conflict in the past, and sadly, communities that probably will endure it in the future,” he said.
Braxton’s comments came during a speech centered on forgiveness, reconciliation and racial harmony, which opened with a prayer for Walter Scott and the victims of the church shooting. The timing of his talk - days after a mistrial was declared for Michael Slager, the former officer who shot and killed Scott, and also in the midst of the federal hate crimes trial for Dylann Roof - was not lost on Braxton. Much of his speech addressed the Black Lives Matter movement and the country's responses to killings of black men at the hands of white police officers.
Braxton said he believes that "all lives matter," but if Americans ignore the circumstances that put some populations in more danger than others, "we fool ourselves."
“The point of Black Lives Matter is that many in the African American community face existential threats," Braxton said, adding that those among the movement should not be silent about lives lost to black-on-black crime or abortions.
Braxton summarized recent cases of black men killed by police while also addressing incidents involving officers slain by civilians.
"We all know that the lives of these police officers mattered to their family, to their friends, to the community and to God," he said.
In times of pain and anxiety over such slayings, Braxton offered five imperatives for those in the audience: listen, learn, think, pray and act.
To those in Charleston, where tragedies have brought racial divide to the forefront of conversation, Braxton encouraged vigilance.
"In my own life, the healing only comes from doing something. You can’t undo what has been done, but do something to make the present and the future better," he said.