The lights were dimmed. The crowd sat quietly, watching the front of the room, waiting for the first images of light. Music began to fill the space: quiet, thoughtful vocals could be heard with the simplest of instruments pacing the lyrics with hushed, deliberate chords.
The screen was next filled with soaring images of a classic church steeple, piercing the sky, suddenly interrupted by the sound of sirens and a television news anchor’s voice-over. “I’m outside the Emanuel AME Church and we do know that several people have been shot….”
And so unfolds the story of Dylann Roof’s murder of innocent church-goers in the basement of the “Mother Emanuel Church” in Charleston, South Carolina, as the Wednesday night Bible study and prayer meeting came to a close. Roof killed them because they were black; a twenty-one-year old white supremacist, he chose to kill them in the church because of its prominent role in African American history. The congregation had been established in 1817.
Roof attended the Bible study that night, June 17, 2015, and participated in the discussion, seated next to the pastor. He listened and sometimes disagreed with some of the reflections made by others in the circle, exploring the Word. When the meeting came to a close with prayer, he stood up, pulled out a Glock 41 .45-caliber handgun (which he would reload five times) and pointed it at an eighty-seven-year old woman. Her nephew, Tywanza Sanders, just twenty-six, stood up, tried to talk him out of pulling the trigger, and asked him why he was aiming at the church members. Roof replied, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And, you have to go.” Sanders then dove in front of Roof to block him and was killed first. Then Roof fired at the others, shouting racial slurs and said, “Y’all want something to pray about? I’ll give you something to pray about.” The carnage could only have been conceived in hell.
I was seated in a room filled with leaders of many different Christian families throughout the United States in Montgomery, Alabama, last fall. The screening of the documentary Emanuel (produced by Viola Davis, Stephen Curry, and Mariska Hargitay) came as a surprise. We were not prepared for its sobering power and astonishing end. The film captures the outrageous tragedy with a kind of inspired dignity that honors the victims, dares the conscience, and inescapably breathes Jesus before the final credits.
As if watching the movie was not enough of a surprise, when the lights came back on in the house, important voices from the film itself appeared on the stage. They had played roles on camera and off camera in bringing the story and its lessons to life. To see and hear Rose Simmons (whose father was one of those shot to death in the church) in person, following up on what she said in the documentary and then giving us more insight, clothed with supernatural faith, was jaw-dropping.
The whole experience is one that I—and those with me (including four young Church of God leaders who had traveled from three states to be a part)—will never forget.
And, thanks to some generous gifts, we are going to bring this same moment to you at each of the three Church of God Regional Conventions this year. Rose Simmons will be there. And the story will be told again. It must never be lost.
Most remarkably, in the midst of the horror and the grief, the outrage and the wickedness, in the courts of justice and in the homes of survivors, Jesus can be found. This is a true story of desperate evil and unspeakable grace. This is a terrifying reminder of what prejudice and careless speech can incite. It is also a testimony of what the living Word can do, even in the darkest hour. As John writes in the first chapter of his Gospel, “In Him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shined in the darkness and the darkness extinguished it not.” Emanuel will sear this truth into your hearts and minds.
Our Regional Conventions in 2020 will embrace The Way of Jesus. And what is that Way? Be with Jesus. Become Like Jesus. And, Do What Jesus Did. Each of the Convention’s components will wrestle with these three steps. They are simple, straightforward, and oh-so-compelling. The vocabulary has been borrowed from a friend of the Movement (and anointed pastor) in Portland, John Mark Comer. He is not able to join us at the Regionals this year, but will hopefully share with us in person in the not-so-distant future. Nevertheless, the truth of The Way of Jesus resonates right now, today.
The screening of Emanuel at our Regionals will be an extraordinary teacher, prompting us to Do what Jesus did. It will also call us to action, bringing the Kingdom to life where we live, in the here and now, becoming vociferous foes of racial prejudice and all the sin it brings. Don’t miss this singular opportunity, spiritually framed and birthed in real life.
One of the moments in Emanuel that will leave you speechless is a scene in which one of the survivors, Polly Shepard, speaks. She was in the room, at the Bible study, faithful that Wednesday night as she had always been. Referring to Roof, she says, “When he spoke to me, I was on the floor, looking up at him from under the table. He just stopped and he said, ‘Um, did I shoot you yet?’ I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘I’m not going to. I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.”
An eyewitness, Polly, has not just become a survivor, she has, in Christ, found her voice and victory. You can, too, in this troubled world. Thy Kingdom come.
Check out the full line-up of outstanding presenters, teachers, and content at this year’s Regionals; you can find it online at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org. Gideon Thompson. Matt Anderson. Derick Grant. Diedre Franklin. Hunter Mobley. Ben Sand. The Enneagram. And so much more.
Sign up and register today. Be certain that your pastor comes, too. The ministry at the Regionals will be transformational. Jesus is the subject. And, He is all over it. Seriously.
Be with Jesus. Become like Jesus. Do what Jesus did. Join us.