Charleston Strong

At around 9 p.m. on the night of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church, I was driving in downtown Charleston, just blocks from the church. I didn’t hear about what had happened until an hour later when I got home. It was eerie to know that the killer was fleeing around the same time I was there. Those are my streets. Charleston is where I was born, grew up, made friends and went to school until I left to attend college. The shooting at the church felt like an attack on my home.

Growing up as an African-American in the South, you quickly learn how important the church is to your community. President Obama said it best while delivering the eulogy of Reverend Clementa Pinckney last week: “The church is and always has been the center of African-American life — a place to call our own in a too often hostile world.”

I regularly ride by the church when I would go to the College of Charleston gym to train and work out. Emanuel AME is not a church I attend, but I know how important it is to Charleston.

My grandmother taught me the most about Emanuel AME. For decades, she has served as an educator and principal at some of the largest and toughest schools around Charleston. Teaching and mentoring is her life’s work. When she walks around Charleston, everyone seems to know her and say hello to her. People call her Juanita Middleton, but my sister and I have always called her “Grammy.”

Just two days after the shooting, I was sitting on a plane next to Grammy on the way to my cousin’s wedding in Shreveport, Louisiana. We were both sick to our stomachs about what had happened. But I could tell it cut Grammy real deep. She knew four of the nine people who were killed that night, including Reverend Pinckney. I couldn’t get it out of my head that one of the beautiful people who was killed, Cynthia Hurd, had dropped off her nephews at my basketball camp a month ago. Grammy introduced me to Ms. Hurd at the camp, and I remember thinking she was such a sweet person. I’ve been thinking a lot about Ms. Hurd and her nephews these days.

On the plane to Shreveport, Grammy and I continued to talk about the tragedy and about Emanuel AME’s history. It is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South and was visited by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other notable leaders. Coincidentally, Grammy told me that her first plane ride was to Memphis in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She was about my same age.

As a nation, we’ve come a long way since the efforts of Dr. King and many others. However, after witnessing the devastation in Charleston, I can see we still have a ways to go. Through God’s grace, we can get there. As President Obama explained during Reverend Pinckney’s eulogy, “If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.” It is my prayer that we find that grace in each and every one of us and continue the important work from our predecessors in eliminating hate and racism.

These last few weeks have been a tough time — for the families of the victims, the African-American community, and for America. The outpouring of love and support from around the country has been great to see. In Charleston, we’re staying strong, but the wounds are still deep.

When I see the resilience of those affected by this tragedy, including my grandmother and others here in the community, and how my city has come together in the face of adversity, I have no choice but to believe that better days are coming.

Sending my prayers to Charleston and everyone who was affected. #CharlestonStrong