I am a regular viewer of those late December “year in review” news programs, and this year, I was completely taken by the story about the Charleston Church Massacre. You may remember that this past June 9 churchgoers, (they might be described as “God fearing people” in South Carolina,) were killed by a deranged gunman during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Although he was an outsider (the gunman fits my demographic) Dylann Roof had been warmly welcomed into the church that Wednesday night, before he turned his violence on the pastor, a state senator, and 7 other members of the congregation. The gunmen later admitted to the killing and said he hoped it would ignite a race war.Unfortunately, violent events like this are far too familiar, but what makes this story truly remarkable is what took place two days after the murders when, during a public hearing, victims of the family were invited to make a public statement.
Please listed to Nathane Milton Brown who testifies, even as she grieves the loss of her sister: (from 5:18 to 6:10)
As moving as Ms. Brown faith and humility are, the story doesn’t end there. Just a few weeks later, Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, an Indian American woman, signed a law, and the confederate flag was finally removed from the South Carolina capitol, 150 years after the end of the American Civil War. Governor Haley used 9 pens during the signing ceremony, and afterwards she gave them to each of the Emanuel families.
I start today with the story of Emanuel because, in the end, it’s a story about hope. It’s about surmounting the seemingly insurmountable, and it illustrates the potential for bringing good out of evil. What animated the congregation and the governor to act the way they did? I think their actions flow from two virtues, virtues they had in great abundance: faith and courage. At UCC we talk about “igniting curiosity, imagination, and passion” and about our “belief in boys.” Both are expressions of faith, faith in the capacity of our boys to become the men they are meant to be, and faith in ourselves, that we might be able to play some role in helping them along their journey.
An aside: As I look at the picture of the gunmen, I can’t help but see another thoroughly confused and insecure adolescent boy, a mixed up kid, and I wonder what might have happened if he had had a relationship with a teacher or coach or a significant adult, someone who might have helped him think through the distorted ideology that tormented his soul. Because the gunman is not a man. Throw a blue blazer on him and a house tie, and he might not stand out in at Laidlaw Hall.
All of this may leave us wondering: Are there needy boys, boys with different kinds needs of course, but needy nonetheless, walking our own hallways? And how might we help them? That may be too difficult a question to ponder on a cold January morning, but there will always be things that seem too hard, too intimidating, and that is where faith — in ourselves, in one another, in a higher power– and courage are intertwined.
If you think about “The Lord of the Rings,” or “Harry Potter,” or “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” you see that in each, an ordinary person is called to confront an extraordinary obstacle, and each succeeds because of faith and courage. Those same virtues were, I believe, what sparked the heroic actions of the congregation and of the governor. Faith and courage become the animating elements for dealing with the seemingly insurmountable.
In this the darkest time of the year, we know that change is in the air. In my own family, for instance, over the course of the next few months, we will have 3 boys graduate from 3 different schools, and I will change jobs and countries. Some may find this sort of thing exhilarating; others, though, may be anxious or ill at ease with uncertainty. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” sign that hangs in my office is more aspirational than actual, but I hope that as we start the New Year together, we’ll be able to count on one another, as together we embrace the slings, arrows, and opportunities of 2016.
Let’s remember that we have been blessed with fabulous teammates, the folks with whom we are gathered right here this morning. Of course, as Nathan Milton Browne reminds us, we are all works in progress. So let’s remember that everyone deals with change in his or her own way. So we need to be patient with one another.
Even in the darkest days, let’s rely on our faith and on our courage. Let’s find hope in remembering, too, that in addition to all of the good folks who are here with us this morning, we have 1,167 reasons to have courage. 1,167 reasons to have faith. 1,167 reasons to believe.