2 Corinthians 12 “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Shared from the pulpit of St. Giles Presbyterian Church, Greenville, South Carolina
July 5th, 2015 Matt Matthews
Two Wednesdays ago (on June 24th) I found myself in Columbia. My afternoon appointments fell through, so I had several hours before I was going to meet my eldest son for dinner. I parked at USC, at the Bull Street deck next to Russell House. I soaked up the AC at the bookstore, and then found myself wandering to our State Capital. I wanted to see the confederate flag before they took it down; I wanted to thank the protesters hastening what I believe is its necessary and long overdue removal. When I approached the statehouse grounds and got my first look at that noble building, I saw the green hearse and funeral car, and I remembered that Senator Pinckney was lying in state under the rotunda. It took my breath away. My heart grew heavy. Though I wasn’t planning on it, and though I wasn’t emotionally ready for it, I thought I should pay my respects. He was a pastor, after all, who was murdered in Bible study at his church. Every pastor in the country—in the world—should be there, I thought.
When I actually got on those manicured grounds, I saw the line. Hundreds of people were standing in line. Hundreds of them. Maybe one thousand. I walked around the line to look at the people. They were mostly black folk. Some, like me, were dressed in business professional clothes. But many wore their Sunday best: black suits, black neck ties, white shirts. Many women carried umbrellas to beat the heat. But there was no beating the heat on that day. Temperatures were expected in the upper nineties; the heat index would climb above one hundred.
People have always told me that Columbia South Carolina is hot. I’ve been to Columbia many times, but never on such a hot day. The city was practically airless. The sky radiated heat—a punishing heat. The ground radiated heat. The breeze—when there was one—carried billows of hot, still air.
And that line radiated it’s own kind of heat. We stood together. For two and a half hours, we stood on those hot sidewalks and shuffled in and out of hot shade, making our way practically from the Horseshoe at USC, down by Trinity Cathedral, through the winding sidewalks of the capital grounds, into a ground floor of the capital where we emptied our damp pockets and went through metal detectors into the air conditioned chill of those hushed hallways.
I counted one ambulance parked in the shade and six EMTs wandering up and down the line asking everybody if they were okay. One woman was being attended to on the back bumper of the ambulance. Another woman about a block in front of me had passed out and was sitting on the sidewalk in her long black dress. People were fanning her. She was okay, but in no state to go anywhere fast. There was no where to go fast, certainly not this line.
I joined the end of that line. Following me was a man in a motorized wheelchair. He wore shorts, a knit short sleeved shirt, and a Disabled American Veterans hat. I thought for a moment that he could be a homeless man. In a moment, another man joined us. These two black men got to talking, and I have to admit that I listened to every word they said. The younger man—he was 78-years-old, I discovered—fought in Vietnam. The older man, the one in the wheel chair, fought in Korea. He was 84 years old sitting in that hot sun. Every few minutes, we’d all take a step or two towards the capital, moving at a slug’s pace to say a prayer over a young, dead minister.
These old men talked of the wars. The older man got frostbite in Korea. They hadn’t gotten what he called their “Mickey Mouse” boots by the time they sent his division to the front. It was winter. Their feet froze. (Mickey Mouse boots, I would learn later, are the water proof combat boots designed for extreme cold.) I told him my dad got frostbite in WWII, in Germany. The old man looked at me. I guess he sized me up. Then he said matter of factly, as if I should have known, that Germany was cold but Korea was colder. I didn’t argue.
Both men talked about their disabilities. Both were wounded by the wars. The younger old man said that when he got home from Vietnam it took him ten years to sleep through the night without dreaming of death. “The term PTSD didn’t exist when I got out,” he said. “They didn’t know what to call it. I thought I was crazy. And I was,” he said. “I was.” He seemed abundantly sane now.
Old men and old women with kind faces and Red Cross vests walked up and down the line handing out bottles of cold water and bags of ice. State Troopers wearing their perfect hats and heavy bullet proof vests under neat uniforms did the same. And so did National Park employees. And so did the white and black ladies from Trinity Cathedral. And so did a large, sweating, white lady lugging a cooler on wheels; she was from her Methodist church. People offered to buy the iced water she had. “It’s free,” she said, happily. “I’m not taking today, I’m giving.”
I’m not taking today, I’m giving. Those words rang like a bell.
When these troopers and rangers and Red Cross volunteers walked past me, they came upon my new friend, the old man in the wheel chair. The cops and rangers tipped their hats when they saw his DAV hat. “Thank you for your service,” they said to him. They didn’t thank the other man because he wasn’t wearing a hat that identified him as a veteran; he didn’t wear a hat that suggested a life of service to his country, of suffering, of bravery, of exemplary citizenship. I wondered how many veterans—and other kinds of solid citizens—sweltered in that line.
The old man looked at the hundreds of people in front of us and said to his new friend, “ You know what’s missing here? Young people. This placed should be filled with young people.”
The two older women in front of me were friends. One was white, one was black. The black one knew the Pinckneys, and had called the home after the shooting. Mrs. Pinckney answered the phone. “I heard her voice and I started crying right away. And she comforted me. That’s the kind of woman she is. Trying to be strong for others.”
And she comforted me. Those words rang like a bell, too.
The guy next to me was a white man. Like me, he hadn’t planned to be doing this. But he was walking by and he couldn’t help but stop. He was sixty-eight, a retired printer who grew up in Columbia. We got to talking. Surprisingly he knew a member of St. Giles whom I know and love, and her family. He grew up with her people in Shandon Baptist Church.
He was at my side. The two black men were behind me. The two women who were friends were in front of me. For today, these were my people. A tall, quiet man stood in front of these women. He wore a nave blue hat, a navy blue three-piece suit, and a black and red necktie. He also wore a big, kind smile, and he wore it winningly. He could have been a model—perhaps a smile model hawking toothpaste or anything synonymous with smiling. As people were leaving the capital and walking past our line, many of them—white men, black men, white women, black women—knew this man. Their eyes would light up. They’d reach out a hand for a shake, a hug. These weren’t formal, stiff hugs, they were glad hugs, reunion hugs, holy hugs. It was too hot to hug, but they hugged him anyway. This went on for 90-minutes. The ladies in front me finally said to him, “What did you do to become so famous?”
The man smiled. “I’ve just been here since 1970. I’ve got a lot of friends.”
I reached out my hand to shake his. “I’m Matt Matthews,” I said. “Now you have one more friend.” And I meant it. He did. He did have one more friend, even though I knew we’d never see each other ever again. I was mindful of how sweet—sometimes fleeting—friendship is.
I hadn’t noticed the young black man in a grey three piece suit who had been standing all along and all alone behind the old black men. I hadn’t noticed him because he was so quiet, and not only quiet, but still, like a pond. He didn’t move. His face was serene. As we approached the doors to the capital, the old men drew that young man into the conversation. He mentioned the word seminary, and for a second I dreaded the thought of another young black minister killed while leading Bible study within the sanctity of his church. I couldn’t stand that unbidden thought.
I asked him, “What seminary?”
He told me he had just graduated from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He was an alumn of Morehouse College there. He was on his way for a PhD at Howard University in Washington DC. I prayed for his home church. I prayed for our St. Giles’ mission team in DC at that very moment; my sons were in that group in DC, so I prayed hard, albeit briefly, because the doors were looming, and for a second, I got scared to go inside.
* * *
We don’t know what Paul meant when he said he had a “thorn in his flesh.” Some have suggested that he had physical ailment like Malaria, epilepsy, or depression. Scholarship suggests that he had vision problems. Whatever it was, that weakness served to be a reminder to Paul that God’s grace is sufficient. Our power waivers. God’s power does not waiver. “Power is made perfect . . . ” How? “Power is made perfect in weakness.” Why? Because weakness invited Paul to think about and rely upon God. And when we think about and rely upon God we’ve got all the power we need. And if we find ourselves standing in some line, metaphorical or otherwise, because of God’s power, we’re going to get there, no matter how long the line, or how hot the wait, God is with us, and we will eventually arrive.
For the first thirty or so minutes I felt like I did not belong in this line at our state capital. I did not know Rev. Pinckney. I did not know of his ministry. He was not my senator. And these people, they were not my people.
But the sweating and the hiding of my tears melted the clutter and dross away exposing my truer self. I did, in fact, belong in this line. Pinckney was mine. These people were mine. The face of God was etched into these black-white-old-young-skinny-large-tired-hot-sun scorched-hope bearing-prayer saying-weary-brave saints. They were mine, these people. This community of sidewalk-standers needed me just a little bit. And I needed them. Seek justice, the prophet said. Love Kindness. Walk Humbly with God. We were walking ever so slowly together. I would stand with them for the duration. These people were the very best of South Carolina. They were Columbia on a hot, hot day. They were Charleston. These red and yellow, black and white were America. That’s melodramatic, I know, but that’s also true.
The sun made us hot, weak, and tired. The memory of the murders made us angry, sad, hot, weak, and tired. But I believe this is also true: because God stood with us in our weakness, standing in that line made us strong. Strength in weakness, indeed.
Glory, glory hallelujah! AMEN
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...