Traveling to Mother Emanuel, the South Carolina church where a gunman massacred nine people Wednesday night, is a type of pilgrimage for those in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. Stephen Green remembers fondly the first time he walked through the historic church, admiring the artwork and original altars, and reflecting on the church's nearly 200 years of finding a place of worship that wasn't segregated.
Today, Green, a 23-year-old ordained AME minister, mourns the death of his fellow worshipers, including Clementa Pinckney, the pastor whose warm inspiration in part lead him to a life serving the church.
"He encouraged me as I intended to pursue a career as a minister," says Green, a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "He was always an encourager and a very gentle person. The entire church mourns for his legacy, his two young daughters, his memory, along with other parishioners and friends of mine who have lost cousins and family members. It is a sad day in our church and in our hearts."
Mother Emanuel's history is very much the history of the AME denomination. It's the oldest AME church south of Baltimore, founded in 1816 by worshippers tired of racially segregated churches. It's significant not just in the South, but across the country. Green looks at the church as more a headquarters for their denomination, which is the oldest black denomination in the country, and one that remains close and connected throughout the country.
In 1822, Denmark Vesey, one of the founding members of what was then called the AME Church of Charleston, led a slave revolt. It led to the church being razed and its worshippers being driven underground, meeting in secrecy until 1865, following the end of the Civil War. It then became the Emanuel Church.
The rebellion happened June 16. The shooting that devastated the church happened June 17. The connection is not lost on Green.
"This was the week of the slave revolt," he says. "It was at that church where this movement was birthed. We intend to pass down that legacy. And as young clergymen, this is a legacy we can build upon as we intend to stand as a social justice church and as a freedom movement for all people. It is essential that that legacy is passed down."
"The very existence of this young man sitting in worship and being able to be in fellowship with these people before he massacred them shows the true lifeline and blood of the denomination that welcomes people regardless of their orientation or disposition."
+The community gathered at Morris Brown AME Church to mourn the shooting at Mother Emanuel. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)In the process of being ordained, Green traveled to Charleston on several occasions. Following an undergraduate education at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he started divinity school in Chicago. During some of the conferences he attended in Charleston growing up, he remembers passing slave quarters and other historical sites. But it was Mother Emanuel and its people that stood out to him most.
"It's an absolutely loving congregation," he says. "Absolutely loving pastors. We were brought to that church as a part of a pilgrimage so that we will be reminded of our history as young people."
Reports following the shooting say that before Dylann Roof allegedly opened fire, he sat among churchgoers for an hour. He was welcomed, which is what the church is all about, Green says. It's a place of love and worship, which has been the ideology of the church since its founding, he continues.
"Regardless of race, color, or creed, or nationality, or sexual orientation, the doors of the church are always open," he says. "We were founded as a denomination that would welcome all people. The very existence of this young man sitting in worship and being able to be in fellowship with these people before he massacred them shows the true lifeline and blood of the denomination that welcomes people regardless of their orientation or disposition."
Being such an open place makes churches like Mother Emanuel easy targets for violent extremists. These churches don't have metal detectors or armed guards. They're soft targets with little security. But even with Wednesday's shooting, the church likely will not install metal detectors, Green says. But they will keep a more watchful eye moving forward.
"As we look to the question of where do we go from here to understanding how this act of domestic terrorism and hate is perpetuated by a system of injustice, it is a challenge for young ministers to be able to continue to stand on the wall to push the message of love in an era of hatred."
"The church exists to be that welcoming place," he says. "The church at it's core is a very Christian church. It is one that accepts the radical message of Jesus Christ, which is to love unconditionally. We cannot allow this episode to be a pause in that matter of unconditional love."'
This tragedy hits home for Green and other AME leaders. It represents fear and hesitation, he says, but also serves as a reminder that they need to continue spreading their message, regardless of the threat.
"As we look to the question of where do we go from here to understanding how this act of domestic terrorism and hate is perpetuated by a system of injustice, it is a challenge for young ministers to be able to continue to stand on the wall to push the message of love in an era of hatred," Green says. "That could have been any one of us at a Bible study on a Wednesday night. That constantly resonates in our mind as we try to stand for justice and stand for love in this very dark hour."