We live on. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, we live on. We live on in the memories of those we leave behind. We live on in words, in gestures, in glances, in anything that changes the heart of another person forever. We live on in loved ones and in strangers, in the people we’ve touched and the people they touch in turn. Each passes a tiny piece of us down the ancient chain of human life.
Sometimes we live on without even knowing it.
So let’s start by remembering each of them by name, the nine kind souls who welcomed a stranger into their midst on June 17, 2015 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.:
● Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd did Bible study and was a manager for the Charleston County Public Library system.
● Susie Jackson did Bible study and sang in the choir.
● Ethel Lee Lance was the church sexton.
● Depayne Middleton-Doctor was a pastor. He was also an administrator and admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University.
● Clementa C. Pinckney was the church’s pastor and a state senator.
● Tywanza Sanders did Bible study.
● Daniel Simmons was a pastor, there at “Mother Emanuel” and at Greater Zion AME Church in Awendaw, S.C.
● Sharonda Coleman-Singleton was a pastor, a speech therapist and a track coach.
● Myra Thompson taught Bible study.
I won’t name the young man who killed them. I won’t name him because I support the “no notoriety” campaign, and because he was nothing more than the instrument of larger forces. “Like a dog on a chain,” says the Bob Dylan song about Medgar Evers’ killer, “he ain’t got no name.”
This week we mourn another gun tragedy, the worst mass shooting in recent American history. It happened at a club called Pulse in Orlando, Fla. There, too, the killer was driven by fanaticism and hatred, this time against LGBT people.
After Newtown, after Charleston, after Orlando, our politicians still haven’t summoned the courage to ban assault weapons or to regulate guns the way we regulate cars. So Americans keep killing and dying in numbers that are unheard of in other countries.
You left us too soon, you nine souls of Charleston, so you probably didn’t see this coming: Donald Trump is the Republican candidate for president of the United States.
Trump delivered a speech this week that should chill all reasonable people to the bone. He’s prepared to punish all of our nation’s Muslims for the actions of one deluded killer. New Jersey Governor and Trump supporter Chris Christie upped the ante, threatening to bomb a foreign country for the crime of one sick individual born in Queens, N.Y.
Hate can’t conquer hate. Even a fool knows that. But then, some people don’t want to know.
The Orlando murderer used his religion the same way the Charleston murderer used his whiteness: as a mask for bloodlust. They’re all the same inside, these killers. They may ascribe their deeds to religion, or race, or a totalitarian social ideal. But their real creed is narcissistic hate. They sacrifice strangers on the altar of their own reflections.
If I could talk to the nine sweet souls of Charleston, here’s what I’d tell them: We’ve had some serious talks since you’ve been gone. We’ve been talking about the black lives lost, about slow deaths from inequality and sudden deaths from an officer’s gun. We’ve been talking about old folks in need and children gone too soon.
We haven’t always agreed. One of our politicians said this to a Black Lives Matter activist: “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”
I disagree. I still think the deepest change begins in the heart. But at least we’re talking. The young people did that.
If I could talk to the nine sweet souls of Charleston, here’s what I’d tell them: We may not have worked it all out yet, but we’ve learned a little since you left us. We’ve learned that economic justice and social justice must go hand in hand, or there’s no justice at all.
You were studying when you died, so I thought you’d be glad to hear that we’ve learned something.
I was standing by an abandoned church in my hometown a while back – it’s a dying manufacturing town – and for some reason the old hymn came to me: “Before this time another year, I may be gone.”
You didn’t know the moment of your passing. None of us do. Each heartbeat could be our last. The rhythm of those beats is our lifeline, our pulse. When it ends, we end. Everything we’ve done, for good or bad, is what lives on. I hope Trump and Christie understand that. I believe that you did.
A year has passed. If I could talk to you I’d tell you we haven’t forgotten you. “Though lovers be lost,” wrote Dylan Thomas, “love shall not.”
Cynthia Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lee Lance. Depayne Middle-Doctor. Clementa Pinckney. Tywanza Sanders. Daniel Simmons. Sharonda Singleton. Myra Thompson.
Remember them by name. They live on.