I write this from my room at Montreat Conference Center, energized by what has been a challenging, convicting, affirming, and motivating “teach-in.” Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda commemorates the 50th anniversary of the civil rights giant’s visit and address to a packed Anderson Auditorium fifty years ago (the videos of the speech are on YouTube in four parts). I heard from heroes this week: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Bishop Yvette Flunder, Charles Blow, Rev. William Barber, and Rep. John Lewis. Sunday, we will hear the word of the Lord as delivered through Bishop Vashti McKenzie, which this former AME eagerly awaits.
But the beauty of this weekend hasn’t been without its curiosities. Many of my colleagues were taken aback at the police presence at Montreat this weekend, which, apparently, is not the norm for conferences here (I was a Montreat virgin up until now, so I had no point of reference). But the most inane of them happened during Saturday afternoon’s worship service.
We remembered the Charleston Nine and were invited to call their names as their photos appeared on the screens. One by one, we spoke of them, “Cynthia Hurd. Say her name. Susie Jackson. Say her name.” We said each of their names, a litany that proved emotional in ways that surprised many of us. I struggled through tears to say their names, as did others. The memory of the massacre is hardly far removed.
As the final name was spoken and the screen dimmed, I heard a loud voice boom out over my left shoulder:
“Dylann Storm Roof! Say his name!”
He was mid-sentence when I turned to my left to see who had said it. I saw him standing in the pews: Ed Loring.
I didn’t know what to make of it at first. Was this part of the remembrance? When it finally registered what he’d said, I immediately noticed the groans in the crowd and the look of disgust on my colleague and friend’s face. Yes, that just happened. Dylann Storm Roof, for whatever insane reason, got a shout-out during the remembrance of the people he targeted and killed because of the color of their skin at an event dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Social media being what it is, the reaction was swift and broadcast to the world.
“This is why the work ain’t done,” a friend wrote.
My first interaction with Ed Loring was — interesting. I found him to be quirky, animated, and passionate. Obnoxious with his outbursts, yes, but I’d hardly call that a crime. This, however — this odd, puzzling, and even inflammatory outburst (from a person with a storied history of social justice work, at that) left me aghast. I had to hug a colleague from Charleston who came up to me after worship and expressed how upsetting it was for her. Some of the people in that auditorium were connected to the Charleston Nine and Emmanuel AME Church personally. An AME Bishop who attended Pastor Clementa Pinckney’s funeral sat in the front row during this very worship service. Montreat’s checkered history with regard to race wasn’t too far from the consciousness of many of us in those pews. WTF was Ed Loring thinking?
I don’t know what he was thinking. I don’t know what point he was trying to make. Frankly, I don’t even care. It’s disturbing that someone who has been on the so-called “front lines” of racial justice could be that daft in such an emotionally charged moment. What’s worse, he had people — white people — coming to his defense on social media.
“He wasn’t praising Roof. He spends his life fighting for these issues. He didn’t mean it like that.”
Yes, I should hope he wasn’t praising Roof, especially since there is nothing to praise. Especially since he has dedicated much of his life to the cause of social justice. That doesn’t mean what he said wasn’t insensitive and/or bat**** crazy. He might have been trying to make a point, but he failed at it spectacularly. Admit that. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t get a pass for doing dumb stuff just because you’ve proven yourself to be “down.” You don’t get to do further violence –intentional or not — to already-hurting people in their presence just because you claim to love them and fight for them. That amounts to nothing more than resounding gongs and clanging cymbals.
“I was right there and I didn’t hear that at all.”
Let me say that I, too, was right there, mere feet away, and I heard exactly what he said. The White friend and colleague sitting next to me heard exactly what he said. The singers on stage heard exactly what he said. My friends from Charleston in the back of the auditorium heard exactly what he said. How did you not hear it? Furthermore, why are we wrong because you didn’t witness it?
Why is his outburst not being categorically rebuked? Why are you trying to gloss over it? Actually, these are rhetorical questions. I already know why, because something along these lines happens too often to people of color when they give their testimonies and point out injustices and insensitivity.
This conference has been life-giving to me in that it has been so honest, at times brutally so. The lament, the confession, the acknowledgment of our country and our church’s need to repent of and dismantle racism — they’ve all been necessary and overdue for us to say. So many of us are on fire after hearing Bishop Flunder call us to repentance and lives of discomfort for the sake of justice, or hearing Rev. Barber urge us to get up and organize in our own contexts. We have confessed corporately our complicity in these systems of injustice. But clearly that was an abstract confession for some people, because the same ones who’d confess with their mouths would turn around and continue to perpetuate bigotry by defending this behavior and redacting the testimony of the folks who witnessed it.
We certainly don’t have to make Ed Loring the ogre of the world, but he’s not even the most problematic one in all of this. It’s the ones who are caping for him, who are quick to issue a salvo of excuses and condescendingly let the rest of us know we’re wrong about him, who are most disturbing. If you can’t even sit with this outburst and name it as wrong, then how much more are you able to sit with your own well-meaning-but-idiotic faux-pas? What does this weekend of confession and turning away from the evils of the past even mean to you?
The work surely ain’t done. Surely, it ain’t.