On Saturday, August 22, it was time for the annual beach vacation. Linda, Robin, Dylan, Carson, and I flew from Washington to Charleston, South Carolina, and on to Kiawah Island, our fifth visit there. Jack arrived later in the day. Though we had been there a lot, on each first day I marvel at Kiawah’s greenness and beautiful design. It’s a pricey place, but the absence of so many of the negative trappings of mass tourism make it worth the extra, even to this thrifty traveler.
We were up early on Sunday, and Linda, Jack, and I motored 40 miles into Charleston for 9:30 service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the one of the oldest and largest black churches in the U.S. South, and site of a terrorist attack just eight weeks earlier in which a white supremacist thug killed nine church members assembled for Wednesday night Bible study.
The church had seen its share of woe since formation in 1791. Early years were hard: ministers and others were jailed for violating laws prohibiting slaves and free blacks from gathering without white supervision. In 1822, whites burned the church to the ground and executed 35, authorities claiming the church was the site for planning a rebellion. The South Carolina legislature outlawed all-black churches in 1834. There was more, and things got only a little better after the Civil War ended in 1865.
We almost certainly would not have attended that morning had the terrorism not occurred. We were trying, in a very small way, to express our solidarity with the congregation, and to worship, something that together we don’t do enough. All three of us lament the state of race relations in our country, and, more important, the continuing violence visited upon African-Americans, whether from racist individuals or the state. It is a grievous wound that has been open and ongoing for centuries. That morning, and every morning, I pray for it to stop.
Indeed, for me (and I’m sure for many other white people of good will), the most remarkable subtext of this ongoing violence is black people’s ability to – as Jesus counseled – turn the other cheek, again and again. To not push back, to not rise up. Perhaps that is the result of centuries of oppression: that pushing back would simply make things worse. So the families and friends of the nine martyred in Charleston counseled love and not revenge, and the congregation united behind them. I’m sure if I were in their shoes I would have not been so forgiving.
The worship that Sunday increased my understanding of their forgiveness and love. As a softie, I confess that my eyes began to fill with tears several times that morning, thinking about all that had been visited on that congregation, not just recent violence, but the centuries of oppression.
I willed the tears to stop, largely because none of my fellow worshipers wept. No, sir, no ma’am. Congregants sang, danced, jumped for joy. All that positive energy was exactly what I expected. I had seen a black church service in film and on television many times, but had never been there live. And it was alive. It was assuredly not a spectator sport, no Lord, you were swept into the action, hugging the people in the pews, singing with gusto (if not, for me at least, always on tune or on beat), loudly proclaiming “Amen.” Too many white churches behave as if Jesus was still nailed on the cross: dour, joyless.
And there was one pleasant surprise: the preaching, was wonderfully basic. When it comes to Christianity, “It’s not that hard” has long been one of my touchstones, thus I was delighted that the interim pastor, the Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff, Sr., made it all simple. We focused on gratitude, or as he kept saying, “the password is thank you.” Amen.
The service lasted two hours. After the last “Amen” I sped downstairs to the toilets, then inadvertently into the room where the massacre happened. An usher confirmed that fact, pointing to the tables where the nine, and the white assailant, had gathered for Wednesday evening Bible study. Tears came to his eyes, and finally to mine, too. We will not forget them:
We headed to Hominy Grill, our favorite Charleston restaurant, but there was a long wait, so we started home. Thanks to Yelp, Linda found the Early Bird Diner on U.S. Highway 17, our path back, and after a shorter wait we tucked into brunch. It was a fine day.
Monday was a chill day. On Tuesday afternoon, after a morning at the beach, all of us motored into Charleston and onto a ferry to Fort Sumter, a tiny island where the Civil War began in April 1861. The National Park Service (which turned 99 that day) is in charge, and the narrations, both recorded on the boat and live on the island, were superb, as was a small museum in the fort. Back on land, we made fast for early dinner at Hominy Grill, always a treat.
Each morning I would rise at 6:15 and ride a rented bike for about 20 miles. Jack accompanied me on the days he wasn’t playing golf, and the rides were great. Wetlands like the Carolina Low Country are diverse and fecund ecosystems, and Kiawah teems with wildlife: deer (there are no predators), thousands of water birds, and alligators, although we saw fewer this year.
Wednesday afternoon was an historic moment for granddaughter Dylan, 7, when she successfully rode a bike without training wheels. “Pedal, pedal, pedal,” I exclaimed, and she did. Watching her ride away, I remembered, vividly, the summer day in 1958 when I made that milestone, and thought a bit about how grateful I am for the bicycle, which enabled my own vast mobility. The password is thank you!
Wednesday evening we drove about 20 miles to JB’s Smoke Shack, an awesome, totally local barbecue. Tucking into my second bowl of banana pudding after a huge meal of pulled pork and lots of sides, I raised my spoon to the memory of my late Southern pal Tom Harvey, a fellow geographer who loved places like JB’s. Tom would have loved the joint.
Thursday afternoon, after a couple of rounds of Scrabble (Jack always beats me) and before dinner, I sat on the porch with a beer, reading a novel on my iPhone. I stopped reading and started paying attention to the sounds beyond the mesh screens: at least three species of birds, two singing and one cawing, another nice reminder of the abundance of wildlife on the island.
Friday whooshed past, and the week at the beach was over. We drove back to Charleston airport Saturday morning. Jack headed west to Texas, Linda, Robin, and the girls north to D.C., and I winged to Charlotte, then Minneapolis/St. Paul, because it was time again for the Minnesota State Fair. Woo hoo! I pulled a little wad of sheep fleece from my suitcase and tucked it into my trouser pocket. It’s a small tradition: each year in the Fair sheep barn, I collect a little ovine bounty and keep it a year, until I get a fresh sample. More on that in the next post.