He stood next to us on the grass. Rev. Clementa Pinckney. He had a deep voice, soothing and powerful. And he stood next to us, waiting to speak. We had gathered near the corner of Remount and Craig to pray for our brother Walter Scott, killed by a police officer in North Charleston. We had gone to the spot not to make speeches or statements, but simply to pray. We gathered around each other. We laid flowers on the grass. We prayed for our brother, for his family, and for ourselves. And Rev. Pinckney was there. I don’t remember what he said, just the tone of it. Just that deep voice, ushering a calm.
We stood outside on the sidewalk. The church was filled to capacity. No room for anyone else. But hundreds stood outside anyway, bearing the heat, gathering around each other. We had come to pray again. But this time we were praying for him, Rev. Pinckney, and the eight other members of Mother Emanuel AME Church killed in a racist attack on Calhoun Street. I sweated through my suit, but it wasn’t the heat that made me dizzy. It was the memory. Standing next to him in April. Standing for him in June. Wondering who we would be standing for next and when it would ever stop. People filed from the church and met us on the street. Though we had soaked shirts, we embraced anyway, one after the other. People talked and cried. Street drummers played and chanted. A few carried signs and flowers.
The defining image of my own week has been that memory of standing with Rev. Pinckney earlier this year. I have gone back to it every day, wishing that we were still there. Wishing that we were not here. Because where we are seems like someplace we’ve already been, someplace many of us thought we only had to pass through once.
In his book, In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now, Benjamin Hedin begins in the same way. He confesses that he once thought of the movement in black and white, as in the old photographs of bombed out churches and kids having fire hoses turned on them. Hedin’s book, published just this year, goes looking for the movement and asking in what ways it might still be present now. He finds many current expressions, especially in the wake of the killings we have had over the course of the past year. Hedin lists Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and, one thinks, if the book had come out six months later Charleston would have been among the names. We are now joined to that growing list of places where our history of explicit and implicit, individual and structural racism, has surfaced in violent and unspeakable ways. Of course, that history also includes Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis, places that many of us were visiting on a bus tour earlier this week.
I had thought this meditation would be about that tour. Field notes from a civil rights pilgrimage. The text was chosen with that in mind. The place in Genesis where Jacob, convinced that he had heard the divine voice, set a stone marker and called it Beth-el, “House of God.” That seemed good poetry for sacred sites; I imagined reflecting on the markers that had been set in places like Medgar Evers’ home, the Lorraine Motel, and the 16th Street Baptist Church. Incidentally, if some of these names and sites are unfamiliar, then Benjamin Hedin’s book is a very helpful guide through the movement told in the voices of many of its key players. But it wasn’t halfway through our week when all the stories began to blur and then the phone rang late at night and then Rev. Rivers, Rabbi Alexander, and I were on a plane and then we were standing outside on Morris Street with hundreds of people crying and praying.
Rabbi Stephanie put it best in one of our conversations afterwards. She had lost the distinction, she said, between the old civil rights stories and our present context, between the black and white photos of then and the living color of now. I felt the same way, slowly beginning to internalize the truth that we are actually a part of an ongoing story. Maybe no one ever thinks they are. Maybe they are just following their ethic, doing what they feel is right, working for justice and equity, trying to live peaceably, and then all of a sudden they just wake up and realize that there is no other movement besides what is being done in a particular time and place. Like Liberty Hill in the fall. Like North Charleston in the spring. Like Calhoun Street in the summer. Maybe like Columbia in the days to come when we go there and stand in the sun to demand that the racist banner come down and be put away once and for all.
The lines are blurred between then and now because the story is unfinished. And I say that because it is the story of what theologian James Cone calls our original sin: the white supremacy that was a part of our founding and has made us sick ever since. A few centuries into this national project and we still suffer from it. From institutionalized slavery to the segregated South to the new Jim Crow and the de facto segregation we can see on a short walk through different neighborhoods, we as a country are unhealed and unfinished. This week’s racist killings of our dear sisters and brothers brings this truth to bear in its cruelest form. Lives have been taken because we have not told the truth. We have not finished the work. We have not realized that the movement needs us just as badly as we need it. For the status quo is slowly killing us all. I think we may know this. And I think it has turned many of us out onto the streets this week to sweat and to cry and to pray. We don’t know where we’re going, but we know we don’t want to go back inside, back to the way things have been, back to illusion that the struggle was won with the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act or the election of an African American president. We want to wake up to the story here and now. We want to join in the unfinished work.
And so we have. For many of us, everywhere we went this week there was a way of joining in. My first conversation in Charleston, stepping off the plane, was with a baggage claim attendant. I had flown standby and asked if she could hold my suitcase when it arrived on the next flight. She asked where I was going and when I answered the prayer vigil she began to cry. Just like that. A stream of tears on the cheeks of a stranger. I can’t speak, she said. Then I turned on my phone and began to receive messages from just about everyone I had ever met. From all around the country came messages of prayer, love, grief, aloha, anything and everything as people ached for us. We love you, they said. Tell everyone in Charleston we are praying for them. Our hearts are broken. We are undone. But all I wanted to do was get back on the street to the Charleston that I know. And while it was not a consolation, it was a comfort of a kind.
An LGBTQ activist standing next to friends from the Central Mosque. A Pentecostal street preacher welcoming the liberal Christian minister. A college professor motioning to a civil rights lawyer. A police officer handing out water bottles in the heat. Everyone praying. Everyone singing. This is the Charleston that I know. And this, dear friends, is the movement.
If Jacob set a stone in the place where he heard the voice of the divine or came into contact with the sacred, then perhaps our current analogue would be setting an empty water bottle on Morris Street. Or a flower on Calhoun. Or a bulletin here on Meeting, laid in the pews where we gather to sing and to pray and to strengthen ourselves for the days to come. Maybe these places are the new sites of the struggle, the 16th Streets and Dexter Avenues of our time. And maybe we are the ones to carry the story on, not as a reenactment but as a lived experience, the flesh and blood embodiment of the work for equality and justice. For years now, we have been working as a part of a broad interfaith multiracial coalition in greater Charleston. Now, during these most bitter of days, we find that we have each other. Looking back on the old stories, that’s all anyone ever had.
So we’re left at the end of the week not to search for the movement, but simply to see if we can recognize it. And to ask if God is in it, still speaking, as our church says, through the dailyness and the ordinary and the struggle and the love. Even through the tears that we cry for our sisters and brothers. We will never be reconciled to their loss. But we will be resolved. Resolved to take care of each other. Resolved to tell the truth. Resolved to work against the hatred that we have seen with the method that we claim: the nonviolence and love of the American civil rights movement. That is who we are.
I really don’t remember what Rev. Pinckney said, just the tone of it. Just the deep voice, ushering a calm. I do not feel calm today, but I do feel love. And I do feel a kind of strength rooted in that love. I set a stone to mark it. A water bottle. A flower.
 Benjamin Hedin, In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015).
 Gen. 35.14-15.
 James Cone, “Theology’s Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Supremacy” in Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue, ed. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Nancy Palmer Jones (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2003).