Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the National Young People’s Ministry Staff gathering in Charleston, South Carolina. This is an annual gathering of conference staff who work with young people as part of their job portfolios. It is always a refreshing time to learn, laugh, and update each other on what is happening in our conferences and lives. We conversed about denominational realities, conference youth ministry structures and events, and the needs of local church youth leaders. We spent time sharing goals with each other and had the opportunity to join South Carolina Conference Bishop Holston and several cabinet members for a meal and conversation. We toured Water Mission, an organization that works with communities around the world to provide fresh, clean water to places like refugee camps and disasters. We ate some really great Southern cuisine and even had some fun throwing axes.
Perhaps the most meaningful experience for me, however, was the visit to Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. church. This church has a legacy of social justice and deep compassion. In 2015, a shooter sat with a group for almost an entire Bible study before pulling out a gun and taking the lives of nine people, including the pastor. A church member named Lee told us about the shooting and detailed other trials the church has survived: the years of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, the Jim Crow south, and now the COVID pandemic. The church still worships both in person and online and they continue to heal and push forward. Lee described the church as “resilient.”
Lee then reminded the group that the Confederate flag rose over South Carolina again in 1962... 1962! He described the hurt that he would feel every time he passed a specific Confederate monument, because he can remember as a child that under the monument was a water fountain designated for Black people to drink from. Taking down the monument and the Confederate flag was not rewriting history, but making sure that the history learned, taught, and presented more equitable.
My eyes were open to many more lessons while I was in Charleston. I also visited the Slave House Museum and stood where enslaved people were sold as property. Did I purchase and enslave people? No. Did my family? Not that I am aware of. But as a white person, I recognize that I still benefit from the system that was put in place all those years ago. It is my responsibility to learn and grow in my understanding of systemic racism and open myself to new experiences. I have to do better. We have to do better.
Next time you are able to travel (even if it just a trip within the bounds of Western Pa), I encourage you to seek out experiences and opportunities to learn something new about a subject you thought you understood or knew. Try to open yourself to new books, movies, tv shows to help you experience a new culture.
I had fun in Charleston. I loved being around my colleagues and the palm trees. I learned about new resources and events offered by Discipleship Ministries and made connections with others. Those are good things that I am glad I was a part of, but my change in perspective and heart is what will last much longer. If you have other questions about my trip, I would love to chat anytime!