A Tale of Two Churches

Understanding last night's massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, where a young white man entered one of the city's oldest historically black churches and shot to death nine people who were participating in a prayer meeting, requires understanding the intersection of race and religion in the American South, and that is no small matter.

I know this difficulty firsthand: about two years ago I moved with my family to Tallahassee, Florida, and in the past few months we stopped attending the large, predominantly white parish on the north side of town where we enrolled as parishioners when we first moved in, and are now going instead to a small parish on the city's south side where the congregation at the English-language Mass is so predominantly black that ours is often the only white family in attendance.

There's a great deal to say about these parishes, including how they complement and support one another in serving this area's Catholics, but for now I'll just note the obvious: Even the Catholic churches in this city are segregated! Of course the segregation isn't exceptionless or inflexible -- there are a few other white parishioners at our parish, and a superficially healthy level of diversity at the parish where we used to go, and in most cases it's not as if anyone is made to feel feel unwelcome at a parish where he or she is visibly in the minority. (Certainly we've never felt anything but embraced by the community at our new parish.) But none of that alters the simple reality of the parishes' demographics, or the ways these are reflected in the parishes' differing practices and traditions: the prayers of the liturgy are the same, but ours are punctuated by by hymns from Lead Me, Guide Me rather than Choral Praise, and the congregation claps and sways along with those hymns instead of standing quietly in place. Parishioners sometimes murmur a soft "Mmm-hmm" or "Amen" when our pastor hits the right note in his homily.

Meanwhile, behind these differing practices are the cultural, historical, and socioeconomic realities they reflect. Our old parish was large, relatively well-endowed, and located in one of the more expensive parts of the city; our new one is small, of modest means, and located in a "bad" (read: black) neighborhood where people like me rarely find an occasion to go. And more importantly, almost all of our present co-parishioners are either immigrants to this country, or members of a minority that this country long regarded as a race of non-persons and non-citizens, and now regarded, sometimes only begrudgingly, as a race of persons and citizens who are of a decidedly second class.

My wife and I love our new parish more than any we've attended before, and hope we'll be part of it for many years to come. I doubt, though, that we'll ever stop feeling like lucky guests who came upon, and were graciously invited to hang around, a community that we can never really be part of. We can attend the church and join in its worship, but the traditions that define this place will never be our traditions, as we will always be outsiders to the distinctively black experience that they grow out of, and that gives these traditions their meaning. That this is a parish of black Catholics in the American South is essential to its being the kind of place it is.

In the same way, the fact that the church targeted last night was another such community—a community not just of Americans and Christians, but of black Americans and black Christians—makes the shooting a very different sort of event than it would have been otherwise. This is why it's so badly tone-deaf for South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, whose office is in a building that until quite recently stood adorned by the Confederate Flag, to release a statement about the inscrutable motives of a person who would "enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another." It's tone-deaf, not just because the motives of the shooter were pretty well identifiable, but because in a very important sense it's not one of her places of worship that was attacked last night, but one of theirs. (Haley is Indian-American, and grew up in a Sikh family—if you think this is equivalent to being a black person in the Deep South, please think again.) I know this, because even as a regular member of a similar church I know that if my parish were attacked in a similar manner, it would be they who had been targeted—not we, and certainly not I.

The painful story of race in this country—a story whose painfulness is not at all in the past, but remains today and will persist long into the future, not just in places like Charleston and Tallahassee but in all corners of the United States—cannot be separated from the story of what happened last night. For the latter story is but a chapter in the former. And we can't tell this story while neglecting the reality that ours is a country so racially torn that even our churches, though one in Christ Jesus, are so often black or white, poor or rich, slave or free. These lines define us, and in defining us they define our churches, and frame the horror of last night's massacre.

John Schwenkler is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.

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