Not mere buildings
A panoramic shot of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine black people were shot and killed last week.

Not mere buildings

There’s a reason the hateful choose houses of worship: That’s where so many of us put our hope.

One day, during my first pastorate in Vermont, I went to the post office to get the church mail. One envelope with the name of a fake organization on it and no return address was addressed to me, so standing there in the lobby I opened it.

For the next five minutes, I read about how gays and women like me were destroying both Christianity and the country, and how I was a “pitiful excuse” for a minister and human being.

I had just done work in New York advocating for marriage equality, and I had written some pieces for national outlets that had been widely shared. The letter had been sent from another state and to the church's box and not my own (a box anyone in the area could have easily known). The postmark was also from Florida, and so I assumed the letter was from someone I had never met, and never would meet, someone who simply disagreed with my writing.

At home I laughed it off. I pointed out the irony of the fact the sender had chosen a stamp with the word “Equality.” I joked with my wife about putting it on the refrigerator. I told worried church members who had heard about it that it was nothing and that they shouldn't be concerned, that I'd received anonymous emails and even text messages with content like this.

What I didn't tell them is that they'd never been quite this hateful.

I didn't tell them I'd taken the letter to the police and been told they could do nothing.

And I didn't tell them that on Sunday mornings when I preached I would keep scanning the back of the church, waiting for the doors to open.

One Sunday shortly after, a man I did not know came into the church midway through the service and walked to the front of the sanctuary. As he walked down the aisle, I kept preaching. But with every word I thought to myself, “This is it...he's going to shoot me.”

He didn't. He had no ill intent at all.

But that day, I realized just how much fear I had been carrying around with me.

* * *

I don't know why that memory came back to me so strongly last night when I heard about the shooting in Charleston at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. But it did. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and made my stomach turn.

And it made me think of driving through the streets of Atlanta when I was a college student there.

It reminded me of driving past Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sweet Auburn, the Temple on Peachtree, and every other house of worship that had been targeted during the Civil Rights movement. I used to think about what it must have been like back in the days when people hated so much that they'd try to blow your church or synagogue apart.

I know now that those days are not in the past. I know the fear I lived with for a few weeks is nothing compared to the fear that others live with all their lives. And I know that for many they would give thanks if their worst experience was a hateful anonymous letter in their church mailbox.

* * *

Last Thursday, I rang the church bells here in Exeter, N.H. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the kind that makes me never want to leave New England. And I sat on the front steps of the church afterwards and marveled at the dichotomy between a night of terror and a day of beauty, and between my life of mainline white Christian privilege and the life of constant fear that too many of the faithful face.

I thought about a church gathered for prayer and Bible study the previous night, and how they had opened their circle to let a stranger join them.

And I thought about a mosque in Arizona and how the faithful walked past angry, mocking crowds with guns in order to worship.

And I thought about the temple in Maryland, and the anti-Semitic graffiti its members found one morning this spring.

There's a reason the hateful choose houses of worship: That's where so many of us put our hope.

You can commit a hateful act anywhere, but if you really want to hurt a community, you choose the place where its members worship. You bomb the synagogue. You shoot up the church. You point your gun and shout at small children trying to get into the mosque. That's how you cut the faithful so deeply that their hearts never stop bleeding.

But the ones who choose to do evil in the gathering places of the faithful forget one thing: These are not mere buildings.

They are the symbols of communities, built often in resistance to hate. They are the places first built by new immigrants, or freed slaves, or spiritual refugees, or genocide survivors.

They have known pain before. And they know how to survive it, and transform it. They know how to thrive in the face of the worst that the small-minded and hateful can do. And they know how to live with a faith that those who take up violence will never understand.

Ringing bells is a small, insignificant-seeming act. And yet, there is meaning. The bells are tolled in remembrance for each life lost. And the bells are tolled as assurance that God is always with us, even in the midst of great evil.

But we cannot forget the last reason we toll the bells: as a divine wake-up call to ourselves. The bells are saying it is time to do the work of justice. It is time to stand against hate. And it is time to call the evils of racism and bigotry, and the terrorism that comes with them, by name.

The bells cannot keep silent. And if we really believe in this faith we proclaim, neither can we.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates