Viewers inside and outside the arena where the funeral for Rev. Clementa Pinckney took place crossed lines of faith in a transformational moment for a glimpse of “black culture” far different from what is usually meant when that phrase is uttered derisively on random cable shout-fests.
The presence of cameras and media, commentators and crowds can change an event. In the case of the Charleston “homegoing” for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, that possibility was a fear of those close to him.
Roslyn Fulton-Warren, at the College of Charleston with three other childhood and longtime friends of Pinckney, had created homemade fans to honor him, with his likeness and the words of Psalm 23. They didn’t want his memory to get lost in the cavernous arena, where the service had been moved to accommodate the crowd. They were even ambivalent about the planned presence of President Obama. Fulton-Warren wondered if his eulogy would take something away from a personal day of mourning. What Pinckney brought to the lives of his friends, constituents and parishioners was “profound,” she said. “It’s amazing that he left such a warmth in my heart.”
It turned out that she needn’t have worried. It wasn’t the service that was transformed. Visitors in the room and those watching the televised service from far away glimpsed of faith in action. Only a hardened heart could fail to be moved.
Neither the arena substituting for a sanctuary nor the media crush nor the famous politicians and civil rights leaders distracted from what the day was about. President Barack Obama told the crowd, “The Bible calls us to hope. To persevere, and have faith in things not seen.” He called Pinckney “a good man,” who “lived by faith … a man of service who persevered, knowing full well he would not receive all those things he was promised, because he believed his efforts would deliver a better life for those who followed.”
When the president’s usually steady and confident voice broke during a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a swelling organ and chorus of voices rose in support. And the people whose job it is to hold events at a distance, the better to cover them objectively, paused to let the moment sink in.
A quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that Sunday morning worship was the most segregated hour of the week is often repeated because in 2015, it still holds some truth. To that separation add the number of increasingly secular Americans who aren’t particularly religious at all. The funeral could have been coverage from another country in another language to those not familiar with the lengthy testimonials, frequent gospel hymns and worshippers standing or commenting out loud when moved by the spirit.
Though I am African American and a semi-regular church-goer, I am no insider when it comes to black church traditions. In the predominantly African-American Catholic parish of my youth and the mostly white one I now attend, the music, the intensity, the rituals are different. But I knew from childhood visits to friends’ churches what to expect in Charleston. And I am aware of the historical role of the black church in the civil rights movement, of its mission as “community centers where we organize for jobs and justice, places of scholarship and network of strength,” as the president said, places that assure children they “are beautiful and smart.”
Pinckney was a politician and a minister, one whose faith guided his work and his life. When I spoke with U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina before the service, he was still shaken and stunned by the death of his friend. “So much promise,” he said, before adding that he was sure Pinckney planned to transition out of politics to leadership in the A.M.E. church, fulfilling a mission that transcended politics much as the funeral service did.
The hours-long service gave those gathered time to read the poems and messages from two daughters and a grieving widow. From Malana, his “baby girl and grasshopper” the belief that “you will be watching over me/And you will be in my heart.” From young Eliana, “He’s there with me all day and night long.” Shared was the belief from “wife, soul mate, confidante, and friend, Jen” that “we believe that your life mattered. It mattered to us, and it will forever change the culture and mindset of the world.”
Viewers inside and outside the arena crossed lines of faith in a transformational moment for a glimpse of “black culture” far different from what is usually meant when that phrase is uttered derisively on random cable shout-fests.
From horrific death rose a message of resilience, devotion and love, in a public yet very personal moment all were invited to share.
After the service, Roslyn Fulton-Warren said she was sure her friend, Clementa Pinckney, would have approved. It was, she said, “Amazing.”
Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at the New York Times, the Charlotte Observer, as a national correspondent for Politics Daily and was a contributor to The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter.
Image of downtown Charleston via Joanne Bamberger, with permission