I moved to Charleston seven years ago from New York City. While it was never a exactly a sleepy southern city, I have witnessed its explosive growth and development, particularly in the last three years. Charleston has grown rapidly and been put on the map, over and over again, as one of the best, most beautiful destinations in the country and a world class culinary mecca. There has been a feeling of palpable excitement in the air as Charleston accelerates into its unknown but exciting future.
I’ve often felt this is almost a ridiculously idyllic place to live, so beautiful some days that it’s almost as if nothing bad could ever happen in a place this nice. I feel lucky to live here, lucky to own a home here, fortunate to have launched a business here doing what I love. I’ve enjoyed Charleston’s hospitality, tasted its amazing food again and again and have tried to give and show the same to our friends and family who visit. When I travel other places, telling people I live in Charleston has often felt like disclosing that I am actually related to someone famous. It gets a visceral, universally positive response – everyone either loves Charleston or has heard that it is amazing and wants to go as soon as possible.
But last week all of that temporarily came to a grinding halt. Our community known for its openness, ease and hospitality was struck, suddenly, violently and seemingly out of nowhere. In spite of all the worse stereotypes of the South, they are not often uttered about Charleston, even though there is room for improvement in the city’s diversity and race relations. But something much worse than any one could have conjured up in their wildest, darkest imagination happened. It did not seem real last week, and it hardly seems real now.
image via gilshulergraphicdesign.com
My husband is an Episcopal Priest at Grace Church in downtown Charleston. When we heard this happened in a church, no less, the blow was especially painful, especially close to home. We had just shared a church service the Sunday prior with the neighboring A.M.E. Church and heard their spirited pastor deliver a message about the power of one to do great good. We consider our church, as many do, one of the safest places to be and one where racial divides do not exist – a sanctuary. A place where you would never have to worry about someone flying off the handle, becoming violent, or doing the impossible – killing.
Nearly a week into this crisis, however, a second story has begun to unfold. It is one so beautiful that it even trumps the cultural renaissance and staggering growth Charleston has been experiencing as of late. The love and peace that has flowed and flowed through Charleston and out of this crisis is overwhelming. Every few hours for days after this terrible event I have read a new story that has brought me to tears – particularly the forgiveness of the victim’s families. “We welcomed you Wednesday into our bible study,” said the Felicia Sanders, the mother of the youngest victim, “Tywanza was my hero, but as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you but may God have mercy on you.” The aid funds for the families were set up quickly and efficiently (learn how to contribute here), the church bells rung in unison from every church in the city and beyond this past Sunday morning at 10AM, and the diverse “unity chain” across the Ravanel Bridge brought thousands of residents out to stand for peace. Prior to this crisis, there was a sense that all this was possible here, but a there was lack of urgency and understanding on how and when to begin to implement it.
I think about one of my favorite movies – the Grinch that stole Christmas – of a dark, despicable, damaged character who came down from the mountain to destroy a community. He was so sure he would rob them of their obscene happiness he was actually gleeful in his pursuit of destruction. And when he got there, even his interactions with the sweetest and youngest of them didn’t deter him from his mission. But what he finds when he looks down the mountain – after he has taken seemingly everything from them – is that where he expects there to be anger and despair, he instead sees love and hope. He hears their bells ringing and voices singing and sees their hands clasped in unity. This is our Charleston community right now. As the Mayor of Charleston observed, “if that young man thought he was going to divide this country… he miserably failed.” Now more than ever, I feel lucky to be a Charleston, S.C. resident.