Yesterday at First Pres, we had an abbreviated worship service so that we could go across the river and a little ways down Chester Street to Allison Memorial Presbyterian Church, our historically African-American PCUSA church, at 11 a.m. Though we went to show our sorrow and support and solidarity in the wake of the tragic shootings in Charleston, we hope that it will be the beginning of a deeper relationship between our two churches.
Last night, I had the privilege of participating in a prayer vigil at Bethel AME Church in North Little Rock. Have you ever agreed to do something and you weren’t quite sure what you were getting in to? I agreed to pray at the vigil and was then told that we would praying prayers based on the nine fruits of the spirit in honor and memory of the nine people who were killed in Charleston. And then I was assigned “joy.” Really? Joy? At prayer vigil for a racially motivated hate crime, I was to pray about joy…but for no longer than three minutes.
I think it took me about two-and-a-half hours to come up with a two minute prayer.
When I arrived at the church, there was no parking to be found anywhere near the building. Turns out, about 1000 people in various shades of skin color turned out for the event, including the governor, a US attorney, the mayor, the police chief, the monsignor, a handful of bishops…and me. One of these things is not like the other…
The racial, economic and theological diversity of the people who gathered gives me hope for what our community can and will do moving forward. Before I even offered up my prayer for joy, I found some in the midst of so many people who could have focused on all that divides us, but instead insisted on concentrating on what unites us. There is much joy to be found in places and times when people don’t let the need to be right overshadow the need to love one another.
There are people working to make sure that the gathering last night is not just a onetime event or an isolated incident, but will be the beginning of a more collaborative relationship between people of faith in the greater Little Rock area. And Bethel AME is collecting all of the prayers given last night and will publish them in an upcoming magazine, so that those who who were unable to attend will be able to pray them as well. Here is the prayer I offered:
We come here tonight not because it’s been on our calendars for weeks or because we had nothing else going on or because this is a regularly held gathering. We came because we couldn’t stay away. We gather as people united in love for you and for one another and for those who lost so much last Wednesday evening.
We come to you shocked and saddened, angry and outraged. We are deeply unhappy. For no happiness can be found in the face of deliberate, hate-filled violence. There is no way to smile when we feel helpless to affect change. No laughter bubbles up in our hearts when those hearts are breaking.
But even in our shock and sadness, even in our anger and outrage, we will not be robbed of our joy. Happiness is dependent on earthly influences—people, events, places and things. But our joy comes from you, Lord. And that joy is our strength.
We are children of God and there is nothing in this world that can sever God’s claim on us. We are heirs to an inheritance that can never perish or fade away. The joy of the Lord is a deep and abiding joy that cannot be rocked by tragedies, wrecked by violence or even ruined by racism.
We pray that your joy will strengthen and sustain the members of the Emanuel AME Church and the people of Charelston. Even though their sanctuary has been breached and their sense of safety and security has been scarred. Even though they are grieving and grasping for explanations and answers that may never come. May they find strength in your joy. May they be sustained by your promise of salvation in Jesus Christ.
May we all live joyfully and gladly in the knowledge of your love. May we abide in you and cling to the vine of Jesus Christ so that we might bear good fruit.
–Rev. Anne Russ