Children, Church, and Charleston-Writing at Vox and WaPo.

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Last week, I spent four evenings at a local United Methodist Church where my daughter was attending Vacation Bible School. My grandmother suggested I sign her up. She’ll be five on the first day of August and she’s reached a tipping point as it relates to social interaction.

When I moved back to Baltimore from Grand Rapids when she was one, I did it in part because my mother, my grandmother and her father’s parents were here. (The other major factor in moving had to do with the a greater breadth of career opportunity on the East Coast, as opposed to the Midwest.) But I didn’t take into account that by moving here, she wouldn’t have access to a single cousin. I’m an only child. My mom was raised as an only child. Her dad’s closest brother lives four hours away (and all three of his daughters are just about grown). She has zero extended family, beside grandparents, here.

I’d forgotten how big a deal that is. I wasn’t raised near cousins, either. And without siblings, I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. Most of my social interaction occurred at church. I still keep in touch with my church friends because of that; they kept me from complete childhood and adolescent isolation in ways they’ll never be able to imagine.

Most of the kids at VBS knew each other; they were a part of that church’s family. Many of them also had siblings and were attending with them. Only two girls were around my daughter’s age and they weren’t really playing with her because they had big sisters to shadow. Instead, my kid found herself surrounded by protective, older boys. They took her hand to lead her to the next station or small group activity. They gave her bear hugs. They looked down at her to make sure she was mouthing the right words and making the right gestures during song time.

It wasn’t lost on me that we were gathering in a church at night, that we were mostly black congregants, that predominantly black church gatherings at night have become sites where we have to worry over our safety in ways we haven’t had to in over 40 years.

I was introducing my daughter to church not just as a place for Sunday worship but a space where one’s sense of family is expanded. I’ve never seen as much joy on her face as I did on those nights.

Eliana Pinckney (left) and Malana Pickney (right) with mother, Jennifer (center) walking to the South Carolina statehouse
Eliana Pinckney (left) and Malana Pickney (right) with mother, Jennifer (center) walking to the South Carolina statehouse

I watched her beam and I thought of those girls, Eliana and Malana. I thought of how one of them was there that night, at bible study, waiting on her Daddy to be done for the night. I thought about the trauma etched onto their faces as they were photographed following his casket to the statehouse (under the shadow of a scornful flag). I thought about the bright white bows in their hair as they sat on either side of their mother in the front pew at his funeral.

The Pinckney girls and their mother at Rev. Clementa Pinckney's funeral
The Pinckney girls and their mother at Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral

Church is family to them, too. I hope the other children there help them smile again, deeply smile, even if it may take years for them to see the edifice itself as a site of pure and guileless joy.

I wrote about the enduring importance of the black church now, in my first piece for Vox. You can read it here. (Many thanks to Dylan Matthews and Lauren Williams for the opportunity and editing, respectively!)

I also wrote about Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s new novel, Balm, at the Washington Post and how eerily resonant it is right now, set as it is on the cusp of the Civil War’s end.

It took me about a week after the massacre to submit anything to a publication about it. I blogged here first, as I often do when I’m trying to process something horrible, unsettling or difficult. I don’t have to be as coherent, precise, or formal in this space. And I feel more confident that the people who read me here are patient, nurturing, and supportive, as I try to work through tough emotions within a safe online community context. That’s important for people like me, who don’t have as many people to touch, soothe, or talk to in person as others.

Community matters. To the extent that any of us have a public voice, we owe its credibility and impact to the people who allow us to vet our first instincts and initial thoughts without condemnation.

Thanks to you all.

8 responses to “Children, Church, and Charleston-Writing at Vox and WaPo.”

  1. May God protect the Pinckney family with all His power and grace. You can trace the sadness in the eyes and faces of these young beautiful girls. These children are experiencing the critical loss of their father, an anchor in their life, compounded by the horror and violence also inflicted on their community. All this, is unbearable to fathom. Precious Lord, thank you for sparing their mother who will be their mountain to lean on, please give her strength and a long life. I agree with you Stacia, community matters, there is power in numbers and definitely more love to promote healing. I apologize for the lengthy response but the loss of my own mother at 12yrs old ignites the sadness and loss that accompanies this deeply emotional terrain. I will say their names, Eliana and Malana when I pray and hold them close to my heart.

    Stacia, I am sincerely grateful for the grace and beauty of your voice and presence. Your words never fail to inform, inspire and reach deep into our hearts to examine this thing called life. You dare to be vulnerable, tenderly human and brave. You so generously share your mind and heart. I respect and admire you. I wish you the best as you continue to pursue your goals and passions. Story will continue to thrive and grow with your unconditional love and guidance.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely writing. I look forward to personally meeting you one day, as it would be a true pleasure. I hope to remain a lifetime supporting member of your community.

    Peace & much love 2u

    Theresa (@LimesTwist)

    • Thank you, Teresa. I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve experience the loss those girls are bearing at such a young age, too. That must’ve been devastating. But your story exists as hope for children who’ve lost a parent. They can grow up to be healthy, loving, and whole; you’re the proof. 💜

  2. A beautiful piece of writing. I’m sorry those beautiful babies had to lose their father in such an ugly manner. My mother has always told my brother and I that church was a place that we were just as safe being as at home. I believed and always rested in my church’s safety,even after I stopped attending. My daughter is seven and she has been learning about God and she wants to go to our church. That means she’ll want to attend children’s church, Bible Study, and evening prayer and service. That’s scary to me. I’m so scared but I can’t very well keep her from attending church. This whole situation has me so unsure…

  3. Hi Stacia. Sorry for this belated response; I hope it is ok with you. I just wanted to point out that there is no white church and there is no black church. The church is one, and it is of God, for He is the Creator of us all, both black and white. If the church cannot be a unifying entity, then it has lost its meaning.

    • Historically, American churches have not been unifying entities. It sounds like you’re talking about the metaphoric Church, the wall-less belief system that should all members of the Christian Faith. I’m discussing brick and mortar churches, many of which have been burned and bombed in race-motivated crime across the U.S. Those can be categorized as predominantly black and predominantly white, the teachings differing in style and content precisely due to those racial and cultural differences — and as we saw with Charleston the dangers presented to congregants being disproportionate according to race.

  4. I was not aware of this aspect of the American church. That is extremely sad; but it also means that the American people – both black and white – have a bigger price to pay.

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