D. Leiva is the editor of The Body Politic. A former staffer for Republican House Leadership, he now works in international development. D. was born into a family with a rich legacy of full-time ministry.
When I read the news Thursday morning and saw that yet another mass shooting had happened, my heart sank. “Here we go again,” I thought. Throughout the day, I sank deeper into defeat and despair. When would it end?
I grieved for the lives lost, for their families and for the affected community, but this also felt personal. As the details emerged that a white male shot a group of African-American churchgoers during a Bible study after they had welcomed him in, I felt angry. Then more details surfaced about the shooter’s racist motives. All the events of my day began to feel hollow, as if they didn’t matter because all of a sudden, racism reared its ugly head and reminded us that it is still alive.
For a few hours, all the suspicions that I’ve had in the past about racism in the South felt validated. For part of that day, I reveled in the feeling that all the comments I had made in previous years about my distaste for Southern culture were founded on truth. I looked through my Facebook feed and liked every comment to that effect, feeling free to do so because the circumstances vindicated my feelings.
As a minority who has worked with and for conservative communities, I have sometimes experienced the expectation that I’m not a good contributing member of this society. In the midst of the immigration reform hurricane of 2013, I would often take call from vitriolic constituents railing about the “Mexicans” who were taking over the country and needed to be kicked out. I can only assume they had no idea they were complaining to a Latino. When some of the people around me learned that my fiancee was white, blond-haired and blue-eyed, some of them made jokes about me marrying her for papers, and I felt like I had to go along with the joke. I’ve felt like I have to be better than everyone around me to prove I deserve equal treatment.
So, in the wake of the shooting, I felt solidarity with my black friends and other friends of color who felt unwanted. I commiserated with friends who felt as I did, and even confided to Rick that I was having a hard time digesting everything surrounding this tragedy.
But then I saw a video of the victims’ families confronting the apprehended suspect and I cried in my office at work.
One by one, representatives of each family that lost a loved one approached a court microphone and poured out their pain and heartbreak before telling their tormentor through tears that they forgave him and were praying for him. I was stunned. Their response was the exact opposite of what I was feeling in my heart and I wasn’t even the one who lost a family member. It was the most remarkable display of the gospel and Christ’s love that I have witnessed in a long time.
Everything about the community’s response to this tragedy felt different. Believers of all races and cultures in Charleston came together to pray, sing praises, and surround the victims’ families with supernatural love. Many of the family members who lost a loved one expressed the hardship of pain, but they also expressed the hope they found in Christ that allowed them to extend grace to a killer. Jesus praying at the Mount of Olives that the cup of wrath pass from him came to mind: Jesus expressed his humanity when he declared that he did not want to die, but he also expressed complete submission to the Father in praying that God’s will be done, not his own. That is what I saw on display as these men and women looked their tormentor in the eye and told him they forgave him.
The families’ forgiveness didn’t mean that their pain was erased, or that their community’s historical racial animus ceased to exist. But despite their natural inclination to revel in despair (a temptation that overcame me), their submission to living out the gospel demanded and supernaturally allowed them to extend the same grace that had been extended to them.
My heart was convicted by the godly and loving response, and I thanked God for being present in the midst of such darkness. I thank God that even through pain and tragedy, he was dwelling in these families’ hearts so the nation could see his love, mercy and grace on display in a way unlike anything this country has recently seen. Through all of this, I hope we are able to follow Jesus’ example, as these families have, in submitting to the Father’s will being done even when we are in agony. I invite you to join me and the Body Politic community in continuing to pray for all affected parties in Charleston.