By John Ruch and Mary Helen Kelly
Good will overcoming hatred. Hope beating despair. Good triumphing over evil.
Those were messages local pastors and rabbis delivered in their first sermons following last week’s mass murder at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
“People come to worship looking for some word about the moment that gives them something to do and gives them hope,” said Rev. Marthame Sanders, pastor at Brookhaven’s Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church.
Over the weekend, churches across Reporter Newspapers communities addressed the Charleston slayings and the young racist accused of killing nine churchgoers after attending a prayer meeting at the historic black church.
Buckhead Church joined in a national commemoration, said Billy Phenix, the congregation’s lead pastor, by opening its service with a chime of nine bells. “We also prayed for the city and specifically for Emanuel AME Church as they gathered with heavy hearts that morning.”
The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King in Buckhead held Masses for the victims, the families and Emanuel AME in the days following the shooting. Rev. Msg. Francis McNamee, the church pastor, preached his Sunday sermon on the theme of Jesus’s disciples in a boat with him during a storm.
“In the storm of life, who do we look to?” McNamee said he asked. “I said, ‘Nine people went to be with the Lord…The senseless act occurred, and it would be very easy to look away from the Lord. But we have to look toward him.”
At Oglethorpe Presbyterian, Sanders’ sermon was a call for communion with people who are different from ourselves.
“My refrain this morning comes from Paul: ‘When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it,’” Sanders said in a text of his sermon, which he posted online. “There is no asterisk next to the statement, listing exceptions based on race, or nationality, or gender, or age, or sexuality, or denomination.”
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Oglethorpe Presbyterian began building a relationship with Atlanta’s historic black church First Congregational, Sanders said. Last Sunday, some of Sanders’ church members chose to worship at First Congregational, which he referred to in the sermon.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s a symbolic gesture—but it is something,” Sanders wrote. “Here at Oglethorpe, we can, and will, pray for the victims and the perpetrator in Charleston. We can, and will, pray for the church on Earth to look a little bit more like the kingdom of heaven. And yet, when we can still talk about black churches and majority white churches, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.”
At Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Rev. Dan Brown tossed out his planned sermon to tackle the horrific killing. He pointed to a remarkable moment after the murders—victims’ family members telling suspect Dylann Roof at a court hearing that they forgive him.
“I thought, ‘Yes! This is how Christians respond in the darkness of deep hurt,’” Brown said in a video posted on YouTube. “They allow the light of Christ to shine at its brightest.”
Dock Hollingsworth, senior pastor at Buckhead’s Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, said he was already committed to preaching from Job, the Bible’s classic tale of suffering.
“I didn’t deal head-on with the racial implications” or other aspects of the shooting because of the pre-planned sermon, Hollingsworth said. But he did use Job to shed light on the response to the crime.
“When I got to the part about Job’s anger at God for what seemed to be senseless suffering, I did reach over and touch that shooting to say Job’s questions are our questions,” Hollingsworth said. “Job gives us permission to be angry.”
Temple Emanu-El in Sandy Springs, like many Jewish synagogues, already was keenly aware of the type of hate-driven violence inflicted on the Charleston church, and provides on-site security, said Executive Director Mark Flaxer, a member of a group of Atlanta-area temple executive directors that will make a donation to Emanuel AME.
“The Jewish community is very attuned with the incident that happened in Charleston,” Flaxer said, adding that Senior Rabbi Scott Colbert, who is currently on a trip to Israel, “did a sermon about dealing with tragedy and dealing with peace in the community.”
At Dunwoody United Methodist, Brown said, “Make no mistake about it, dear friends: hurt and heartache, tragedy and grief, violence and sorrow are not the final word. The final word belongs to God…,” Brown said.
“There will come a day when there will be no more racial division.”