As Father Bob Stoeckig began his hopeful and heart-felt homily on keeping the faith in the face of storm and tragedy, a thought occurred to me:
At about the same time he was offering his insight into a passage from the Gospel According to Mark to the parishioners of St. Andrew Catholic Community Church in Boulder City, all over America people of myriad faiths were sitting in places of worship struggling to find the right words to comprehend the indescribable: A young man fueled by racial hatred walked into a Wednesday night Bible study group at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., pulled out a gun and shot to death nine parishioners.
Even in a society jaded by senseless gun violence and the mass murder of innocents, the racial hate crime managed to cut through the malaise. The murders, which some called an act of domestic terrorism, generated questions about just how far our country has come on the rocky and dangerous road to civil rights for all people. Once again a nation’s faith is being tested.
In the Catholic church in Boulder City, a priest illuminated the part of the Gospel that finds the apostles in a boat on troubled waters with Jesus asleep in the back when a storm blows up. They are afraid, and their faith is rattled by the tumult. Father Stoeckig reminded those gathered, “Do not let any terror take away your faith, your commitment to go on over to the other side.
“Jesus speaks directly to the storm, ‘Peace. Be still.’ Peace is never merely an absence of conflict. It is the presence of the Spirit who charges us, despite the storm, to pursue peace with everyone.”
This past week, an amazing thing happened in South Carolina and Alabama. Conservative politicians, who for generations have parlayed and exploited the fears and failures of the Confederacy by audaciously placing its battle flag in public places of honor, were at last moved to take down the symbol that is so offensive to so many Americans. The arguments of Southern “heritage” and “tradition” were swept aside in the wake of the killing of unarmed black Christians in a house of worship by an avowed racist.
Without mentioning the flag controversy, the priest offered, “Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”
The removal of the Confederate flag from view was one of many remarkable occurrences.
At an arraignment for the alleged killer, family members of some victims implored the troubled man to confess his sins and get right with God.
And where there might have been endless lamenting and tears, shouts of joy and praise were heard from the indefatigable, indestructible Mother Emanuel church.
That ought to make the racists of this country scatter like roaches from the light. The despair caused by an evil act hadn’t shattered the faith of the congregation. It had bolstered it.
Their calls of praise echoed throughout this troubled land, where violence in places of worship has become an all too common event.
“In the past seven years in the United States, there have been at least six other shooting incidents in churches or other faith-based institutions,” Stoeckig said. “One of the first messages to the people at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston last week came from the members of the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, who faced a very similar situation in 2012. Several of them began the drive down to Charleston to volunteer wherever they could help. And to have conversations with those who mourn.”
Last week at a funeral service for Mother Emanuel parishioner Ethel Lance, grandson Brandon Risher said, “She has to represent something we all know is there — love. She is a victim of hate, but she can be a symbol for love. That is what she was in life. Hate is powerful, but love is more powerful.”
These are stormy times in America. Where words ultimately fail, a message of faith slices like a ray of daylight through dark clouds.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Find him on Twitter: @jlnevadasmith