Some 23 years ago I visited you for the first time and fell in love with you. Your deep history and patient old soul felt familiar, comforting and full of hard-learned lessons about life—an embrace to the soon-to-be-mama I was that summer. I was taken with your beautiful architecture, ocean breezes, slow style, cobblestone streets, balmy evenings and—mostly—your good people.
You stayed in my heart for years, like a favorite tune that you just can’t get out of your head. Years passed before we returned, our little guy then 10 years old. It was autumn and the majority of the tourists were gone. You were our playground during the day and, when the cool evening air rolled in off the bay, we learned about the souls that haunted your city—some tormented; some in love.
Soon our boy was grown and it is now just the two of us that return to you, year-after-year, as life becomes challenging. We talk about you 51 weeks a year … the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met here, the experiences we share. And we anxiously anticipate the next time we’ll see you. You are our refuge. You are our favorite city.
Five months ago, I booked our summer stay with you for this week in June. We’ve been counting down the days.
Last Thursday, I woke up to find a text from my husband. Evil had come to Charleston and cut a hole in your heart. Nine precious souls were taken. We watched the news reports and grieved with the rest of the country.
We arrived today, amidst news of the media and the President arriving later this week. We wandered King Street, walked past the Old Citadel, then looked down Calhoun Street and saw the people. That’s when we realized where the church was. We stood a half-mile away on a street corner, debating whether to go closer. I didn’t want to be part of the curiosity-seeking masses or part of the media frenzy. But then we were there in front of that AME Church, that beautiful, historic building with its steeple towering toward heaven.
A make-shift memorial lines the wrought-iron fence in front …flowers, notes, signs, crosses and a T-shirt—hanging off the fence, that reads: “I Can’t Even…” And I can’t either. What kind of evil seeks out the peacemakers? The faithful? The ones that opened their hearts and their prayer circle to a total stranger? The ones who did exactly what HE asked? I say a silent prayer that I can be the kind of Christian, the kind of heroes, that they were …to always have an open heart.
No one can stand in this place without crying for the injustice, the lost souls, the pain their families are enduring … for you, Charleston. A gentle breeze blows through this mostly quiet place, delivering the sweet scent of your nearby crepe myrtle trees. A large sign that says CHARLESTON UNITED –has been placed in front of the church and thousands of people have signed it, its wood frame and everything supporting it.
As we walk back to the car, we see signs everywhere … hanging off buildings (“Holy City – Let us Be the Example of Love That Conquers Evil”), in front of stores (“Hate Cannot Drive Out Hate; Only Love Can Do That” ~ MLK), and in windows (#PrayForCharleston and #CharlestonIsLove).
We walk slowly back toward King Street.
“I’m glad we went,” he says to me. “Because if we all come together, then we diminish him.”
I walk into a jewelry shop and, suddenly, I’m caught off guard. Crying. I see a bracelet with the very prayer that I say every morning, but it seems especially poignant in this moment. It is St. Francis’ Prayer:
“Lord make me an instrument of thy PEACE. Where there is hatred let me sow LOVE, where there is injury PARDON, where there is error TRUTH. Where there is discord HARMONY, where there is doubt FAITH, where there is despair HOPE, where there is darkness LIGHT and where there is sorrow, JOY.”
Your people won’t let this stand, Charleston. They will make you proud.