Remembering the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney
By Sandra Archer Young, Ph.D. 7th Episcopal District
“When my room becomes a public hall, and my face becomes a looking glass…”
I often marvel at the clever and even delightful use of figurative language, particularly metaphors, in the African American prayer tradition. These two specific lines are regularly and reverently repeated each Sunday morning at many African American worship services towards the end of the opening prayer.
These lines reference life’s final scene: death. Whether it be a wake in a funeral chapel, or a service at a church or public facility, at death our final “room” is transformed into a public space where mourners come and go. It is a place where families are united and reunited, acquaintances renewed, regrets uttered, and perchance new promises made. Friends and family in black suits and somber attire file by an open casket to pay their last respects. As they gaze at that figure, now silenced by death, that face becomes a “looking glass,” a reflection of the silent, mute, and unseeing individual we all will become when death knocks at our door. We see ourselves.
Now that the trial of Dylan Roof is over, I remember Pinckney’s “public hall.” Eight days after the murder of the Emanuel Nine, my husband and I waited with hundreds of others outside that public hall of that historic church to say good-bye to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
As we stood in the intense heat, the scene outside of the church was not solemn; if anything, an almost tangible energy could be felt. Groups of men, women, and children of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, strolled outside of the huge metal barricade in front of the church, many carrying flowers. Volunteers handed bottles of cold water to those waiting to enter the church. Television crews and reporters were everywhere. Oddly enough, it did not feel like a media spectacle. It felt as if something significant had occurred in the universe and that the myriads of strangers surrounding us had signed a covenant pledging to stick together until they had made sense of it.
So I am writing now to remember the Clementa Pinckney I knew. I met him just after he was elected to the South Carolina Senate—just in time to help our daughter, Charlotte, with her social studies report. Her eighth-grade teacher told her to research Jasper County; and so we drove to Ridgeville—the county seat—to visit museums and important public places, conduct interviews with county clerks, and take lots of pictures. A few days later, Charlotte informed me that she wasn’t satisfied with her report. She shared her dissatisfaction with her dad who knew what we didn’t know: Clementa Pinckney, also an AME minister, was a legislator from Jasper County.
A few days later, we met the Rev. Pinckney after church at a downtown hotel. He arrived in his signature suit. I sat quietly on the other side of the hotel lobby while Charlotte conducted her interview. When they finished I snapped pictures of both of them. A stranger looking on offered to take a picture of the three of us and then we all went our separate ways.
Charlotte received an A on her report. My daughter, now a foreign service diplomat, called me weeping, the day after he died. I said what I could to comfort her. When I hung up, I searched through a hall closet and pulled out a box of old photo albums, digging for the photos we had taken with the Rev. Pinckney. It took some time but I finally found them. The snapshots are not of the best quality but his unmistakable smile is still present.
As I remember the Rev. Pinckney, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to know him. I am grateful that my daughter was able to meet a man who truly cared about people, even eighth graders. I am grateful to have known a quiet gentleman who at death became a national hero and now inspires awe in strangers. I marvel when I remember his funeral, a public hall, entered and viewed by thousands across the nation. Then, I remember the final words of that old Negro prayer, words laced with comfort and hope in the God who set eternity in our hearts:
“Give me a home somewhere in your kingdom, where I may praise your name more perfectly, world without end. Amen.”