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Emanuel 9 campus event touches hearts
6/30/2016 2:58:48 PM

Rising fourth-year College of Medicine student John Robinson shared his personal reflections following the shootings at Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015.
By Mikie Hayes

Some clutched tissues. Others hugged and comforted colleagues. Others still were silent, both in reflection and prayer. An auditorium normally abuzz with conversation and anticipation, was, on this day, the one-year anniversary of the tragedy at Mother Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, somber.

MUSC President David Cole, M.D., FACS, welcomed the audience filled with MUSC employees and guests. “We’re coming together to show our support and to honor all those who’ve been impacted by the tragic event that took place one year ago today,” he said. “Last year, each of us were at a different point, a different day, a different moment when we all converged on the tragic event that brings us back here to this point, one year later. The unspeakable act. The horrific act. The senseless murder of nine of our community, nine of our family, nine of our colleagues, nine of our friends. For many at MUSC, they represented nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, friends.”

He continued, his words poignant and measured. “So this day is certainly etched in our minds, in our hearts as a community. As health care providers, community members, people and individuals, we will always remember this tragic event and remember the victims that this has affected.”

Cole shared his belief that MUSC is a family. One of the ways MUSC demonstrates being a family, he said, is how its people respond to challenges as a group and to situations that are horrific and tragic. “I have to say, having the honor of being president of MUSC, I believe that how MUSC responded as a community and with the community to this is something we should acknowledge and be very proud of. There wasn’t some road map. There’s not some pathway to say this is what you do when this happens. Aside from maybe looking into your heart and trying to see what you might be able to do to reach out to those around you in response to something like this.”

Anton Gunn, MUSC Health chief diversity officer and personal friend of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church, was emotional as he took the podium. “This year, this past year, has been hard as a community and as a nation. What happened a year ago today touched the lives of everyone in this room, everyone in this community and city. But many around this country are still to this day struggling to understand what happened. Why it happened. And the purpose behind it all.”

He said he, too, has been struggling with these very issues, in large part due to another personal tragedy in his life that many don’t know about. His younger brother, Cherone Louis Gunn, was one of the 17 U.S. servicemen killed in the terrorist attack against the USS Cole in October of 2000.

“I know what it’s like to have one day normal and the next day, your life is forever changed by a horrific event that boggles your mind to try to understand. So I’ve been living with this type of situation for a while. But the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church was also another personal one, because of my relationship with Clem Pinckney, pastor of the church and member of the South Carolina Senate,’” he said.

When they wer’e both 23, they met at the South Carolina Statehouse. “We were the same age, but he was serving in public office,” Gunn said. “It gave me the confidence that I could be the leader I wanted to be.” They later served together: Gunn in the House and Pinckney in the Senate.

A week after the shootings, Gunn drove to Columbia to pay his respects to his friend, where his body lay in state. At the Statehouse, Pinckney’s casket had been placed between the House and Senate, as he served in both chambers during his 18 years in office. While there, Gunn spoke to Jennifer Pinckney, the wife of the pastor, and her words to this day stick with him: “Clem talked about you all the time. He loved you for the way that you love hip-hop music and culture. He couldn’t tell everybody how much he loved hip–hop music in the church or at the Statehouse, so he lived through you and your Facebook feed.”

That affected Gunn deeply. “It gave me a stronger sense in the context of – you never know the impact that you have on other people’s lives. And I can safely say, these nine people, whether we knew them or had a personal relationship with them or not, have had an impact on all of our lives and the lives of this community. And so, as we reflect a year later on this tragedy, and try to find a purpose and a meaning, let us find purpose and meaning in the lives that each of these nine individuals lived.”

Rising fourth-year College of Medicine student John Robinson shared his personal reflections about the tragedy. On the night of the shooting, he was returning from the library where he had been studying. He received a text from a friend at the College of Charleston who said that there was a shooter on the loose who was killing black people.

Terrified, Robinson went back to his room to try and get details and protect himself. With nothing on the news to provide information, he called other classmates to make sure they were safe and see if they knew more than he did.

Once the news emerged that a young man killed nine innocent people in an effort to start a race war, Robinson was in disbelief. “We were shocked knowing that this happened to some of the most upstanding citizens in our community. We grieved knowing that these were good people who simply wanted to welcome a stranger into their house of worship and allow him to experience the hospitality that Charleston is so known for, while sharing the rich tradition of faith that Mother Emanuel AME church has provided for so many. It was the accepting nature of these fine few that allowed a grossly misled killer to perform what he thought would be a match strike to a powder keg of hatred and fury across the nation. What he failed to realize was that the heinous nature of his crime would inspire feelings of compassion and draw condemnation from even the most ardent supporters of race-based violence.”

AME minister Melvin Williams has been an MUSC chaplain since 1994. He provided words of comfort and prayer at the event. “This is a sacred moment to me,” he said. “I am a chaplain, but I am also an AME chaplain. Mother Emanuel has been my church as long as I’ve been a pastor. Sen Pinckney was my good friend. We knew each other’s family members, and we were good friends.”

Williams compared Job’s story in the Bible to that of the Emanuel Nine. He said what looked like a defeat was turned into victory. “When the families and survivors stood up that day in court and said, ‘We forgive him.’ Those were the words of Christ, if you recall, he said, when he was on the cross.”

With fire and brimstone in his voice, Williams explained that forgiveness is a word of eternal release. “It is a release from burden. It releases you from the desire to hate and to think about revenge. That’s what forgiveness will do. Forgiveness is a word that can change defeat into victory and this is what those surviving families did. They set the mood for the entire city of Charleston. They followed the teachings of Christ. They stood up and said, ‘We forgive him.’”

She explained that the alleged shooter belongs to a sister congregation in Columbia and that for the past year, the Evangelical Lutheran Church has been working hard on events of racial reconciliation. “Today it is a great honor, a humbling one. What the shooter meant to do — take down those who were in Bible study — today, I’ve been given this privilege as a Lutheran pastor to lift up the names.”

She spoke the names of the nine victims and asked for 90 seconds of silence. The Rev. Dr. Terry Wilson, manager of MUSC Pastoral Care, offered the benediction.

“May God give you grace not to sell yourself short; grace to risk something big for something good; grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”

With lowered heads and tear-stained faces, people streamed out, many embracing as they processed the words of comfort and healing.

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