I wanted my name in the book. I wanted his children to know that South Carolinians cared enough to come and pay their respects to their father, Clementa Pinckney. It was also the thing I knew how to do. After the terror of that June evening I had no idea what to do to help with the healing, I am still struggling to figure that out, but as a pastor, I knew all too well the importance of the rituals surrounding death.
I put on one of my funeral dresses and I parked a block away from the State House. I walked in the heat and got in a long line with all the others who had shown up, too. I stood sweating between a couple from a local AME church and three businessmen who worked in an office around the corner. A little girl and her mother went up and down the line offering to spritz people with one of those spray bottles equipped with a fan, the ones normally carried around at Disney World. The Red Cross volunteers handed out water bottles. The funeral home placed boxes of fans along the route.
I stood alone, grateful for the intermittent shade. The couple behind me knew many of the people who passed by. They spoke and hugged and lamented. The three men ahead of me talked about banking. The oldest man in the group confessed that the heat was getting to him given that he’d grown up in New Jersey. The two younger men, one black and one white, said it bothered them too even though one grew up in South Carolina and the other, the one with an embroidered N.C. State belt, said he worked summers on the family farm in this kind of weather. The man from New Jersey told about the first time he’d ever seen a field of cotton, so flummoxed was he by the sight, he pulled his car over and walked into the rows to feel it. The other men laughed. They had the easy rapport of colleagues.
As we moved closer to the entrance of the building, a young woman with a camera approached the three men. She asked to take their picture. She said she was from the University of South Carolina student newspaper. The men were polite, but declined. The man from New Jersey said after she left, “I told you something like that would happen.” The young African-American man replied, “Yep, we represent diversity.” They all laughed, uneasily this time.
I made my way into the building and through security. The line continued around the lobby and up the stairs. There was a row of guest books and state troopers stationed throughout, one reminded me quietly, “No photos.”
I paused at the body. I prayed a silent prayer and then went to descend the stairs on the opposite side, but a few steps down I was forced to stop. The three men were ahead of me, standing still, the young man with the N.C. State belt, the farm boy, was waiting, as if at attention but with his head bowed, for a woman in front of him to regain her composure. She was weeping in the arms of another. She apologized for crying. The person comforting her said, “It’s OK, it’s OK, you knew him.” The young man stood resolute, silent, unwilling to go around the weeping woman. We waited until she could move.
Upon exiting the building I noticed the line was still long. There was something beautiful in the tapestry of people paying their respects, representing something right in the midst of so much wrong. I thought about the three men and the tender scene on the stairs. I felt a sense of hope for the future of our state with such a troubled past.
Then I heard it. I jerked my head up and saw a big truck roar past the front of the State House, a truck that had blown its horn, a horn that played “Dixie.” That’s when I started to weep.
2015 has been marked by much weeping. May God turn our mourning into dancing and our grief into action.
Grace and peace,