This past month, both my father and father-in-law died within weeks of each other. I also learned of the death of a dear friend I had known since I was a teenager. Next, came the shootings in Charleston. I’m in a season when death and dying is all around me. This is why I haven't been writing recently. Now more than ever, I realize life is short and the Angel of Death comes calling too soon. Depressed, I spent the past week binge eating ice cream, drinking bourbon, and watching Netflix.
Maybe I should have gone to church.
I decided this week would be different. No more wallowing in self-pity. Instead, I made a point of attending Sunday school at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church here in Iowa City. My wife and I are relatively new members, having joined the church more than a year ago. Like our sister church in Charleston, Emanuel AME, Bethel also has a bible study Wednesday evenings. Maybe thinking about God instead of my pending demise would snap me out of my melancholy.
Even though I’ve been in ministry for 20 years, adult Sunday school at Bethel is unlike anything I have ever experienced. The teacher, Dr. Michael Hill, is an associate professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. While I congratulate myself for having a vocabulary that placed me in the 98th percentile of students, according to my ACT college entrance exams, Dr. Hill’s vocabulary must have placed him in the 99.9th percentile. He uses words I’ve never heard before. Any teacher who compels me to pick up a dictionary commands my respect. The real thrill is hearing his powers of description applied to biblical exegesis.
Exegesis. Now there’s a fancy word. If you haven’t heard it before, it refers to explaining the meaning of scripture. Dr. Hill deftly surfs between the perspectives of black culture and the predominantly white intellectual class of his professional peers. He is as likely to quote a lyric by rapper 50 Cent as he is Aristotle.
I was enjoying Dr. Hill’s exposition of this week’s lesson, when I found myself distracted by the presence of a young man who sat near the exit of our basement classroom. He was a stranger who, in spite of our lively discussion, sat quietly, staring straight ahead.
I pegged him as a copycat killer.
My suspicion was confirmed when he got up and left in the middle of our study without saying a word.
I was sure he would return with a gun.
What was I prepared to do?
I thought it likely there was nothing I could do.
As a Christian, I believe in an afterlife. I believe when death comes, I’ll be transformed into a realm of eternal joy and peace. Given all the sadness and anguish I’ve experienced recently, I was OK with moving on. I was at peace with being gunned down, so long as death came quickly.
Surely my funeral would be packed with attenders. I’ve often worried about dying friendless and alone. I began thinking about my legacy and how my life would be memorialized. Dying in another racially motivated shooting would give me the recognition I deserve.
Wait. I’m white. What’s more, I was sitting next to Joe, the only other white person in the room. Joe and I are both in our early 50’s. Two white guys who crossed the cultural divide to enjoy relationships outside our own race. Perhaps we would be the ones spared. It would be our job to relate the horror to the media.
That would be awful.
Instead of eternal peace and an elevated legacy, we would be tortured by survivor's guilt, which would fold into PTSD...wait...wouldn’t true racists see us as “nigger lovers?” On second thought, we might be the first to go.
Dr. Hill closed our Sunday School study with prayer. I felt guilty about being so distracted by my own fears. At that very moment, Joe turned to me.
“Did you notice how many people there are in the room? NINE. There’s NINE of us,” he said, referencing the nine killed at Emanuel AME church in Charleston. An older black woman chimed in, “I was thinking, Lord, if it’s my time, it’s my time!” Her remark needed no context. At that moment, it was clear we all were distracted by thoughts of “what if?”
This is the power of terrorism. The fact that the deaths of nine churchgoers a thousand miles away could rob another nine churchgoers of their peace days later...years later...nine...ninety. Time and quantity doesn’t matter when there’s a stranger among us. When our fears take over. When we cease to be a welcoming, loving spiritual family, preferring instead to become a suspicious people unnerved by outsiders.
Poor guy. He probably visited out of curiosity. Maybe he left early because he had to go to work.
Whatever the reason, I hope he returns.