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Mother Emanuel still shines a light

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Mother Emanuel still shines a light

Two Charleston police officers stand in front of the Emanuel AME Church, Thursday, June 18, 2015, following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

It’s an impressive well-tended building, and it’s been right there for so long on busy Calhoun Street.

Yet too many of us have barely noticed.

But we do now, and we appreciate that Mother Emanuel’s history and its institutional services are as important as any church in old Charleston.

This church is a bastion of religious teachings, a nest of Christian love and hospitality.

For a long and sorrowful week, a nation has genuinely mourned the nine good men and women murdered simply because they were there, at their beloved Mother Emanuel, and because they were black.

But the mourning and grief that swept this country as the horrible news registered was quickly transformed — to an awe of the loving humanity of those family members who one by one, gazed sorrowfully at the pathetic and bigoted suspect and uttered their forgiveness.

This is religion.

This is faith.

This is virtue trumping prejudice and bigotry.

This is the work of a church that now will forever be recognized for what it has always been — a bedrock of Christian faith and service. Mother Emanuel and its members have challenged all of us to check our hearts, our capacities for forgiveness, our tolerance for racism in any form.

And now, throughout America, the often confusing and always daunting grounds of better understandings and relationships among races are trembling beneath our feet.

Mother Emanuel is the epicenter.

In a crusade to get it right once and for all and to honor Mother Emanuel’s fallen, South Carolina is moving toward remanding the Confederate battle flag from Statehouse grounds.

But this journey is not ours alone.

Retailers like Walmart and Sears have stopped selling products depicting Confederate emblems. Internet giants eBay and Amazon have done the same.

And Monday, as Gov. Nikki Haley was leading on South Carolina’s initiatives to remove the flag from Statehouse property, Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn called for the Confederate emblem to be removed from the Magnolia State’s flag.

At Tennessee’s Statehouse, a bipartisan group of legislators said it was time called for of a bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest — an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan — to be removed from a Senate lobby.

In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has signaled that Confederate symbols and monuments will be re-evaluated as his city plans for its 2018 Tricentennial — including the well-known Robert E. Lee statute in Lee Circle.

“These symbols say who we were in a particular time, but times change,” a Landrieu spokesman noted. “Yet these symbols — statues, monuments, street names, and more — still influence who we are and how we are perceived by the world. Mayor Landrieu believes it is time to look at the symbols in this city to see if they still have relevance to our future.”

Much of the Confederacy’s iconography has been hijacked by agents of hateful and mean racism. America, it seems, is responding.

The discourse is quickly taking us where we need to go — to a starting point in a national dialogue on race relations.

Half a century ago, on a cold winter Saturday morning, I awkwardly approached Mother Emanuel, a journalist-in-training. My assignment was to take some photographs to illustrate an article on this African American church which was once considered to be in the “suburbs” of peninsular Charleston. I was greeted by several attentive and helpful black men. I wondered if my church would have been as hospitable to any one of them if they had come to visit. And I remembered their oft-repeated invitation “to come back — you’ll always be welcome.”

Last year, on a warm Spring day, I went to the church simply to see how the new elevator structure was being positioned. The main door was ajar, so I hustled up the steps to refresh my memory of Mother Emanuel’s beautiful sanctuary.

Two elderly women sat in wheelchairs just inside.

Their faces brightened with smiles as a younger woman joined them.

“Come in, come in!” one of the old women declared. The feeling of genuine hospitality had not changed in 50 years.

I was a stranger from the street. The young woman introduced the two ladies by name and then explained they’re in church whenever there’s a service — “just about anytime the doors are open.”

The oldest of those nice old ladies reached for my hand with both of hers. She urged me closer, better to hear her simple and soft assurance: “You are welcome here!”

Her specific message seemed important to her; it meant even more to me.

God bless Mother Emanuel — and its messages and practices of love and human caring. May it always be a font of inspiration and humanity — forever honoring those nine good people who fell to senseless violence and raised the conscience of an entire nation.

Ron Brinson, a member of North Charleston City Council, is a former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at

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