Members of New Light Congregation and the Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church visited Charleston, SC to join their Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend celebrations and to grieve and grow with the Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church, the site of a mass shooting in 2015.
The idea of the trip was initiated by the Gottfried family (Dr. Peg Durachko, Carol (Gottfried) Black, Debi (Gottfried) Salvin and Debi’s husband Donald Salvin) as part of the process of healing following the murder of Dr. Richard Gottfried, DDS. The organizing efforts of Beth Kissileff Perlman helped make the trip happen. Additional travelers were Rainell Adams and Gwendolyn Bowick, members of Rodman Street and Proverbs’ classmates of Rich, and Stephen Cohen, New Light Congregation Co-President.
On Monday, January 21st, wearing “Stronger Than Hate – Words Matter” t-shirts and carrying the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh banner; the group joined over 120 floats, marching bands, and community organizations. The group marched over two miles with members of Mother Emanuel Church and the Charleston Jewish Federation. Ranell commented, “As we marched in the Martin Luther King Day Parade arm-in-arm, chanting these words of unity with resolve, I believed then and now, this is how we are supposed to live: ‘We are Pittsburgh Strong. There is No Place for Hate! No More Hate! No More Hate! No More Hate!’”
“Martin Luther King, Jr. is really a prophet for our time,” Beth Kissileff Perlman, Rabbi Perlman’s wife, said. “I’m sad in 2019 that Jews and African Americans are united by having been slaughtered in their houses of worship in the United States of America. We share many bonds and, unfortunately, this is one of them.”
On Friday night, the group visited Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, a Reform Congregation, for an interfaith service celebrating MLK Weekend. The KKBE is the second oldest congregation in America, formed in1740; and the first reform congregation in the nation. Active in social justice, they helped implement the first multi-cultural training program at the Charleston Police Department. We were happy to have Polly Shepard, a survivor of the Mother Emanuel Church shootings, join us. Polly had recently traveled to Pittsburgh to share her journey of healing.
On Sunday the group visited the Mother Emanuel Church in the morning and the Morris Street Baptist Church in the afternoon for special MLK programming. Senior Pastor Manning of the AME Church spoke of the meaning of hate and how words can lead to evil actions. The highlight of the afternoon service was the Mayor of Charleston, John Tecklenburg, playing the piano and singing “Abraham, Martin and John”.
But the true purpose of the weekend was to comfort and be comforted. Pastor Manning had a definite recommendation: seek help; talk to someone; don’t bottle up the hurt and anxiety; seek comfort in others and reach out to everyone even partially affected. Grief takes time to resolve.
During the alter call at the conclusion of Sunday’s service, Pastor Manning asked our group to come forward for a special time of prayer during which over 80 church members surrounded and hugged our group.
Peg noted, “(t)he city of Charleston lavished us with genuine love and support. I found myself feeling as though I was taking but not giving back. Then, at the eleventh hour the gift we brought to them revealed itself. A young Jewish man named Brandon Fish had recently lost his close friend who was an activist for social justice. Our visit inspired him to do two things. He was finally able to return to a special place they used to share. Then he told us he is ready to pick up the cause for his friend and carry it forward! So the Pittsburgh “City of Bridges” has already built one bridge through our New Light to Rodman Street relationship. Now, through our Pittsburgh to Charleston bridge, we have inspired the building of new bridges among faith communities here in Charleston. That would make my dear husband very happy.”
The weekend ended with a question and answer period with Pastor Manning. The Pastor came to Mother Emanuel almost a year after the shooting. The Congregation was in disarray with serious disagreements between members. Many members had left the Church, because of these disagreements and because many had moved away from the immediate neighborhood. Charleston is in the throes of gentrification. Rising housing values has forced many congregants to move outside the City.
We asked about the building. The Church held a service four days after the shooting. Was it too soon? It was definitely healing for the community, to pray together as one. But many members were still in shock and cried throughout the service, overcome with the emotion of recent events. The Pastor’s recommendation was to not make any hasty decisions. Let time heal the hurt and pain.
Finally, he talked of the upcoming trial. Should we attend? How should we prepare? In Charleston, many in the congregation forgave the shooter, but the killer never said “I’m sorry”. While the Department of Justice has many excellent people trained to assist those who will be testifying, he suggested that we should also seek out spiritual assistance prior to attending or testifying.
In conclusion, one of our group had an epiphany walking down the middle of King Street with thousands of spectators on the sidewalks. The song “We Shall Overcome” needs new lyrics. The end of the first line ends with “We shall overcome someday”. Instead it should be sung loudly and often: “We shall overcome TODAY!” It is almost sixty years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Someday is now! Today!
Stephen Cohen Co-President New Light Congregation