While many churches have abandoned Wednesday night prayer meetings or pastors have delegated such duties in order to focus on other areas of ministry, I love Wednesday nights. This week was no different than the Wednesdays before it. Our Charleston church gathered together. We spent 30 minutes in prayer worshiping God and making supplication for those in need. Then we settled in for our study of the book of Acts, the work of the Holy Spirit in the early church, and the power of prayer. We enjoyed a great time of teaching and fellowship, and we went home spiritually satisfied.

Fifteen miles away, another church gathered for the same purpose. Their meeting, however, didn’t end the same way. After nearly an hour in prayer, shots rang out as a visitor assassinated eight members and the beloved pastor of Emanuel AME Church. They’d gone to church to find peace in a turbulent time and they entered their eternal peace instead.

A Storied Church

“Mother Emanuel,” as it is known, boasts a long and storied past. The oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the South, this lighthouse of hope has ministered to former slaves, guided the community through the Civil Rights era, and faithfully ministered to the Charleston community. Today, the community is ministering to her.

I knew Emanuel’s pastor, Clementa Pinckney, though not very well. As a church history professor I’d taken students to his church. I’d stood in his office. We’d heard about his church’s ministry. We’d pondered their legacy. Now it’s obscured in a haze of gun smoke and inexplicable violence.

Close to Home

This tragedy strikes even closer home to me. One of the victims was a track coach at a local high school. Her son attends the college where I teach, and my son attends the school where she coached. Earlier today I broke the news to my son. Though he didn’t know her personally, the tears in his eyes say he knows something of the hurt every parent tries to shield their child from.

This night of terror touches on another area of my life. I’m a pastor, too. As Pinckney surely felt last night, I’ve rejoiced when God has brought visitors to our church. Now I wonder if I’ll ever look at strangers the same way again. Are they potential members, or are we potential targets?

One of my members, a past victim of abuse, said it well: “I’ve never felt fully safe, but church was always a place I felt safe. Not anymore.”

What do we do when church isn’t safe? How do we react to the harsh reality that church isn’t a sanctuary? We’re reminded that there are no safe sanctuaries in a fallen world. We are only safe in Christ.

How to Respond?

Today, not even one day later, churches all across Charleston and the nation struggle between two heartfelt reactions. We mourn with those who mourn. We revisit security plans so we never have to mourn for our own. We hurt for those in pain, and yet we secretly rejoice it didn’t happen to us. Even though we weren’t there, we know we could have been, that it could have been our church. In one sense, then, we are all survivors of this massacre. We must heal and we must go on. But how?

In the coming days the response will be predictable, tried and true. Theologians will offer us carefully reasoned explanations of sin and depravity. And rightly so. Counselors will tell us that grieving is not only natural but helpful. Commentators will point to cultural problems and political solutions. Pastors will humbly, with almost embarrassed tones, call their churches to greater faith, to trust God when things don’t make sense. We’ll tell our people God has a plan and is working all things together for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28).

All of these things may be true. All of these things may be what we truly need to hear. But in the wake of any tragedy, words often ring hollow. Passionate pleas become pious platitudes, easier said than done.

So, what do I tell my children the next time we walk into our sanctuary, our former safe haven, and there are strangers in our midst? How do I convince them they’ll be safe? What can I do to alleviate my wife’s concern that her pastor-husband could be the next victim? How do I comfort her knowing my Army Ranger training tells me to run toward trouble, not away from it? Pastorally speaking, what do I tell the victim of abuse when she knows the world is full of evil people and that senseless violence is all too real?

I’ll tell them the same thing the Bible tells us: pray.

When the victims have been buried, when the murderer has been tried and justice has been served, we will still be praying. We will pray for the survivors. We will pray for the families. We will pray for the community. We will pray for racial peace and harmony. We will pray because that’s what we were doing. We will pray because we will not be silenced until we take our dying breath. And we will pray that we’ll be faithful to the end just like the nine of Mother Emanuel.

We will pray because we find our safe sanctuary in Christ alone.