Betty Deas Clark: At Mother Emanuel AME Church, a congregation is healing still

Photo by Leroy Burnell / The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier

A year after the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church, the congregation is healing from its own unique and often overlooked loss. And the hand of God is moving still, says a pastor assigned to the church after the shooting.

Update: The Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark has been reassigned to Bethel AME church in Georgetown, S.C.

It is impossible to weigh the pain that people experienced in Charleston, South Carolina, and indeed around the world, a year ago this week, when nine people were killed in a mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church, says the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark.

But the Mother Emanuel congregation has suffered its own unique loss, one that is often overlooked, Clark said. In some ways, perhaps, the congregation has more to address and deal with than any other group.

“The parishioners to some degree are the forgotten in this whole tragedy,” said Clark, who was appointed as pastor in January. “Families lost a loved one, and in some cases maybe two, but this congregation lost 14 people in one night. Nine died, but for a time, the [five] survivors weren’t here anymore [either].

“The familiar faces, the familiar voices, the normal day-to-day activity of the congregation, all of that was changed.”

Yet healing is slowly progressing, Clark said.

“[Mother Emanuel] is a place where I know the hand of God is in motion,” she said. “And the good news is that the best for this congregation and its leader is yet to come.”

Clark was pastor at Mt. Pisgah AME Church in Sumter, South Carolina, when the shooting occurred at Mother Emanuel AME. On June 17, 2015, nine people at the church’s Wednesday night Bible study, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, were shot and killed by a young assailant, an avowed white racist. Five others survived.

In the wake of the shooting, Emanuel AME was led by an interim pastor until January, when Bishop Richard Franklin Norris appointed Clark to the church. A native of Awendaw, South Carolina, Clark has a B.A. from Limestone College, Gaffney, South Carolina, and an M.Div. and a D.Min. from Erskine Theological Seminary, Due West, South Carolina.

She spoke recently with Faith & Leadership in an interview conducted by Charleston writer Stephanie Hunt. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us a little about your transition to being pastor at Emanuel AME Church.

On [Saturday] the 23rd of January, I was given the appointment. On [Sunday] the 24th, I was on the job here.

I had to pack up enough in Sumter, which is about two hours away, to get me through a few days. I cleaned out my office at Mt. Pisgah AME Church so that the pastor who was coming in would have a clean office and a nice desk and feel at home. Then I went back to the parsonage, which was next door, and tried to craft a sermon.

In the Methodist system, you’re here today and you’re gone tomorrow. I always tried to make my presence “gone tomorrow.” A lot of pastors linger and linger and linger. But I believe that it helps the congregation, it helps the incoming pastor, and it even helps me to just say goodbye and move on.

I can’t grieve the loss of the congregation I’m leaving and truly embrace the congregation I’m coming to, so I just had to disengage, and I thought I did that quite well.

Q: What was it like to come to Mother Emanuel AME as pastor in such a moment of chaos and crisis and deep, deep pain?

Mother Emanuel is in the Edisto District, where I had served before. So I had been in and out of Mother Emanuel, because many major meetings in the district are held here. Some things -- some congregants, the layout of the church -- weren’t new to me. But the role as the pastor was oh, so new to me.

It was like the difference between being a passenger and being the driver. I had sat here before as a passenger, but now I’m the driver. I’m the leader. I am the pastor. While you’re traveling the same road in the same vehicle, the view is different. The role is different.

I think what prepared me is that in a number of my congregations, I had been the first female to be the pastor. And this was pretty much the same, though this was brought about because of tragedy.

The parishioners here welcomed me with open arms, which is always good. I’ve never had a problem with that, but in light of the tragedy, for them to be willing to embrace another pastor -- wow! -- that spoke volumes to me.

Later, I found out that some of the parishioners were praying that their next pastor would be a female.

Q: Really? Why?

I don’t know. I’m just sharing what I heard. Why would they want a female pastor? I don’t know.

I believe because of their brokenness, because of their pain, because of the tragedy, they wanted a nurturer, and women tend to nurture. I came in as a nurturer, to be honest. I came in listening to their stories, sharing their pain, crying with them, holding their hands.

And I guess it’s what the doctor ordered.

Q: Were there challenges that you were not prepared for?

Every church that I’ve pastored has had its own unique circumstances, and Mother Emanuel is no different. Yes, the tragedy has compounded much of what I do, but you have to accept a church for who they are.

Sometimes one mistake we make is we peg a church, like a round peg in a square hole, and we don’t accept them as individuals. So I’ve always tried to do that.

Q: What were some of the biggest opportunities, both for the congregation and for you, in this role?

The message of forgiveness that was offered shortly after the event gave us a platform to actually walk out the love of Jesus and to help people to see what a relationship with Christ does for you. How does it empower you? How does it distinguish you from the rest of the world?

While it was a tragic event, I see the hand of God yet still moving, in that his message is being shared by many.

There are opportunities, and yet there are challenges. There are days when you feel like, “Wow, we’re moving forward!” And then there are days when the pain is so real, and it seems as if the tragedy was only yesterday, where you bend your knees and you pray just a little longer, just a little longer.

One Sunday as I was greeting the parishioners as they were leaving, a young man came to me and said, “Pastor Clark, this is the first Sunday I’ve been back since June 17th, and I want you to know that I’ll be back next Sunday and the Sunday after.”

That was comforting to me.

I spoke with a young man only yesterday who said that he’s not quite ready to come back to the actual building. But we had a wonderful conversation.

I extended to him an invitation by saying, “Listen, if you’re not ready to come to the building, don’t worry. Should you want to meet somewhere to have a conversation, to have lunch, just give me a call and I’ll make myself available. Because actually, this is the building. We are the church. Wherever we go, there is church.”

Q: Speak some about that, about the building, about the sanctuary. It’s a church, a sacred space, and it was a crime scene -- and now also a shrine of sorts. The physical place itself is so charged .

It is charged.

I tell people not to think they can weigh the pain of people as a result of June 17th.

But I think the parishioners have a whole lot more to deal with than any other group. We yet still worship in a place that was deemed a crime scene. We yet still, in order to get to the restroom, walk through where bodies lay. The parishioners to some degree are the forgotten in this whole tragedy.

I mean, I saw it in the beginning, but I yet still see it. Families lost a loved one, and in some cases maybe two, but this congregation lost 14 people in one night. Nine died, but for a time, the [five] survivors weren’t here anymore [either].

The familiar faces, the familiar voices, the normal day-to-day activity of the congregation, all of that was changed.

The congregation is going through a healing process that is unique, even to the survivors or the family members of the deceased -- or should I say “massacred.” I’m not just saying this because I’m the pastor. But because I’m the pastor, I can see what most people overlook.

Q: Is there a lesson there for other congregations and pastors?

It’s paramount that other Christian leaders take a look at that.

For example, in the death of a parishioner, family members come and then they leave. But that congregation sits and watches the place where Mother Mary once sat. The congregation, they’re the ones who now try to figure out, who will become the president of this board or auxillary now that Mother Mary is gone?

The congregation deals with many other layers of grieving that family members or survivors don’t have to deal with. That’s not to diminish the role of the survivors.

The world is talking about “the Emanuel Nine, the Emanuel Nine.” That’s important, but what about the survivors? Those who lived through bullets flying, those who lived because they were lying in the blood of a loved one, what about them?

Q: Speak some about the public role and witness of Mother Emanuel AME, both in Charleston and South Carolina and in the AME. How do you think about that, particularly in light of the Rev. Pinckney’s political legacy and the legacy and history of the congregation? What is it like for you to be a public pastor in this way?

I really don’t see myself in that light -- even though I know I’m there -- because I deal with people individually. I deal with circumstances based on that circumstance.

But I also understand that I am in a cutting-edge role. I understand that there will be pastors who will one day come and say, “Pastor, I need to talk with you. I need you to help me walk through what you’ve been through.”

I’m aware of that. And by the grace of God, should that time come, I will hopefully have something to share with them.

But I do understand that the pain that we felt on June 17th didn’t only happen here in Charleston. It was a pain that is still being felt around the world. Even though I was in Sumter, my heart was here in Charleston.

Watching the media coverage, I saw people from all walks of life. I saw people from all ends of the city and abroad holding hands, praying, mourning, grieving, spending time together, but it took a tragedy to bring it about.

But the good news is that rather than having an uprising -- which was the [shooter’s] desired result -- there was an outpouring of love.

Q: When you were a student in divinity school, where did you think you would be at this point? Tell us a little bit about your own spiritual journey and how your leadership qualities have grown and evolved.

There’s this understanding in seminary that it is similar, believe it or not, to the Wizard of Oz. Near the end of the movie, the great and mighty Wizard, as he’s dispensing the things that the travelers were desiring, tells them, “What you needed was already inside you.”

Well, everything that I needed for this journey was inside me. Seminary only helped to pull out of me what was already in me.

Seminary does not teach you how to pastor, but it gives you the tools to use while pastoring.

I was a student at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, South Carolina, and I took it very seriously. Very few people would drive from Charleston, sometimes leaving at 4 o’clock in the morning, four hours to seminary, sit in class for eight hours, and then drive back home, take a shower, write a sermon on a Saturday night and preach 60 miles away on a Sunday morning.

To add to that, when I took Saturday courses, I would go to bed on Sunday and then sleep all day Monday, get up Tuesday morning, drive back to seminary, stay until Thursday or Friday, and the cycle was ongoing.

A course that should have taken three years I did in about two and a half. I was always driven to cross the finish line. Seminary was a great experience. It gave me a lot of exposure. It helped me gather many tools that I use today.

Q: What is the gift that you offer Emanuel, and what is the gift that Emanuel offers Charleston and the broader world?

While your question is two-part, I’m going to answer it as three-part.

What is it that I bring to the table as a gift to Mother Emanuel? I have a heart full of love. I have a very compassionate spirit. I have a deep love for God, and I want to see his will done among his people. That’s the gift that I bring to Mother Emanuel.

What does Mother Emanuel bring to me? By accepting me as their pastor, it tore down the wall that one would approach an appointment like this wondering, “Will I be rejected or will I be accepted?”

By opening their arms to me, they blessed me. Their acceptance made me feel not like a stranger but like a leader coming home.

Third part, what does Emanuel, along with its pastor, offer to the world? I’d like to think that our message of forgiveness is a message that will cause many to examine themselves.

I believe and hope and pray that it is a message that will cause the world to understand the fulfillment of the Scripture that says, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35 KJV). That the ministry and the gift of love -- that with it, we can change the world.

Q: Thank you. Anything else?

I want to express a deep appreciation for the leadership of the AME Church, especially Bishop Norris.

At a time when Mother Emanuel was broken and bleeding and hurting, while he had the opportunity to select a pastor from around the world, I am so grateful that God led him to give the appointment to me. I’m so glad that God worked through him to appoint me here.

It is a place where I probably would have never thought of being the pastor. But it is a place where I know the hand of God is in motion.

And the good news is that the best for this congregation and its leader is yet to come. That through the midst of all of our moments and nights of crying and sadness and pain and devastation, the best is yet to come.

That even though, when we look at the Twenty-third Psalm, where it says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” -- because we who are alive, any one of us could have been here, and we could have experienced death. For us, death is as a shadow, a dark cloud that hangs over us.

But we are here to declare that even in the midst of the valley, there’s victory in Christ Jesus.

And that’s the end of the story. At least for today.