They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This Sunday, I became convinced when I saw this picture taken that morning at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. As this picture came across my Facebook feed, I just stopped and stared at it for a while, trying to formulate the thoughts that immediately assaulted my heart. The only thing I could put in the comment section was, “There is so much in this picture.” In the days since, I’ve seen the picture many times and each time, I have to stop and stare. Because in that picture, I see something that my heart is passionate about. I see something that speaks volumes to the church, if we will listen. I see something that shares truth with the world, if they will hear it. And I see a vivid picture of Jesus, if we will see it.
I sit on a church staff. I have been in meetings where we discuss whether to open the church doors on snowy, icy mornings. I cannot imagine the staff meeting where they had to decide if they’d open their doors on that sunny Sunday morning. Was it a long meeting? Did they think “Not yet. People need time to heal. Time to “deal with” their grief. Not yet.”
Or, as has seemed the practice of this church since they lost their dear friends, pastor, and family, was it simply a matter of faith? That of course we will open our church doors, just as we’ve opened them forever. Of course we will invite in the children, for Jesus has told us to welcome them just as he told us to forgive. Just a few days earlier, America saw a very different picture of that door, with a shooter in front of it walking in unbeknownst to the believers inside. But this door didn’t stay closed in fear. It was opened in faith.
Through HIm you believe in God who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God. I Peter 1:21
Not even a week after the shootings, not even a week after death and violence and hate made its way into the sanctuary of this church, not even a week after they said goodbye to their pastor and leaders and family and friends, and the church doors are open. Not just open, welcoming! And not just welcoming, but welcoming to the youngest among them.
I have kids. I can imagine the fear they had returning to that place on Sunday morning. I can imagine the feelings of confusion and sadness they had experienced that week. But when this little girl arrives to church, the door is opened for her. She is welcomed into the space. Her little upturned face that seems to be asking a question is answered with a door wide open and presumably a congregation ready to embrace her. A closed door says, “There’s nothing here for you” but an open door says, “Come. Live. Hope. You are welcome here.”
“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Mark 9:37
Following the terrible shooting that took place, one of the victims son’s (Chris Singleton) made a statement that within seconds had become the rallying cry of Charleston. In honoring his mother’s faith and love for Christ, Chris said, “Love is always stronger than hate.” And, these weren’t just words for Chris. He went on to express tearful forgiveness for the shooter. The next day, a video was released on the victim’s families, one by one, talking to the shooter and publicly forgiving him for what he had done.
The conscious choice to choose love over hate, forgiveness over bitterness, life over death, rocked the media and the country but for me… the picture showed an even more important audience… the children of this church. They watched the adults who have talked to them about God and sat with them in church show them through word and deed that church wasn’t a place or a time or even a tradition – church for them is being Jesus in the most tragic of circumstances and the saddest of times. Tell me that the reaction they watched happen in their church hasn’t left lasting impressions of God’s unconditional love on their hearts.
And now these three remain; faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. I Cor. 13:13
Oh church, that we would learn from the reaction of this church, what it is to be the body of Christ in some little way. That our faith would not be bound by fear, that our hope would not be dimmed by death, that our love would not be succumbed by hate and that our children would be welcomed in faith, hope, and love into our churches every time our doors are open.
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About the author
Christina Embree is wife to Pastor Luke, mom to three wonderful kids, and family minister at Nicholasville UMC. She is passionate about seeing churches partnering with families to encourage faith formation at home and equipping parents to disciple their kids in the faith. Currently studying Family, Youth and Children’s Ministry at Wesley Seminary, she also blogs at www.refocusministry.org and is a contributing blogger at ChildrensMinistryBlog.com