Charleston: Part I

love‘This is such an aberrant incident that we just naturally come together and honor those that we’ve lost, they are good good people who are important parts of this community and they’re our neighbors. We love them.'”–A resident of Charleston.
A wonderful sentiment, but I only wish that the murder of 9 worshippers in an historic Charleston church last Wednesday was “aberrant.”
Sadly, it was not.
Violence on a mass and horrific scale has become common place in America.
I happened to be in Charleston last week and left one day before the shooting. I was with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley at an ULI Symposium celebrating his remarkable career.
Riley is a legend in Charleston and he has six months left on his 10th and final term. He has served 40 years.
Much has been said about Charleston in the past few days, about race, violence, guns, mental illness etc.
I read a lot of it, but kept thinking about Mayor Riley and the people in the community and in that church family.
First, the mayor.
When you are in a position such as mayor, you get credit when good things happen and blame and responsibility for when things go south.
The credit part may not be entirely fair, since it takes a team to build a great city, although a bad mayor can kill a town faster than a good mayor can make an impact.
But when things go wrong in a city, it’s a mayor’s job to be chief listener, healer, problem-solver and if possible the person who can keep hope alive even when facing the worst news imaginable.
In great tragedies, there are always lessons; teachable moments that can bring a community closer together.
When I read the quote from a Charlestonian on I was struck by the phrase “they’re our neighbors…we love them.”
It’s always a common theme; an antidote to hatred, racism, intolerance and violence.
Love can cure, but it doesn’t always heal. The nine worshippers gunned down in church will not come back regardless of how much we love them. It won’t bring back the children and the teachers who were murdered in Newtown, Connecticut either.
But yet love is the answer to some of the worst afflictions plaguing our society.
We have enough hatred. We need much more love.
Charlestonians take a great deal of pride in their community. And they should. It’s a beautiful, historic city.
But much of that history is difficult.
The church where the attack took place was built by a man who led a slave revolt.
Denmark Vesey led the revolt in 1822.  He was convicted in a secret trial in which many of the witnesses testified after being tortured. After they hung him, a mob burned down the church he built. His sons rebuilt it. Last week, it was turned into a shooting gallery by an avowed racist.
Still, the Confederate Flag flies at the state capitol, an affront to many.
Spend any time with Mayor Riley and he talks about these issues, the importance of making the public realm beautiful for everyone, rich, poor, black, white or other, the public square belongs to all and that’s why it must be made beautiful.
He has devoted the last several years to acquiring land and raising money for an African American History Museum in Charleston. He plans to continue his work at the museum after he leaves office in six months. He told the symposium last week that it was important for Charleston to host the museum and tell the story of the African American experience in America.
Mayor Riley is beloved and respected in his hometown. A place he has devoted his life too. But the great mayors–and Riley is undoubtedly great– aren’t devoted to policy or things, buildings or monuments, they are devoted to people.
His love for Charleston is synonymous with his love for its people. And last week, the community came together. Those who expected rioting, “do not know us”, said a pastor at Emanuel Church yesterday. He talked about love, he talked about forgiveness and community.
Love: that’s what will sustain Charleston in this darkest of hours. It won’t bring back those who were tragically gunned down while studying the Bible, but it will enable that beautiful city with a complicated past to endure.


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