Building bridges of hope, bridges of understanding

By Joe Harvard

Guest columnist

In this June 19, 2015 file photo, the men of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. lead a crowd of people in prayer outside the Emanuel AME Church, after a memorial for the nine people killed by Dylann Roof in Charleston, S.C.
In this June 19, 2015 file photo, the men of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. lead a crowd of people in prayer outside the Emanuel AME Church, after a memorial for the nine people killed by Dylann Roof in Charleston, S.C. AP

It has been two years since the horrific shooting of the nine members of Mother Emanuel Church at a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina.

I was asked to serve as the transitional pastor at First Scots Presbyterian Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015. That night we heard of the terrible tragedy at Emmanuel AME Church down the street from the congregation I was called to serve. This horrible act was perpetrated by a white supremacist who hoped his act would ignite a race riot.

It might have, except for the response of the victims’ families, At the bond hearing two days later, they offered forgiveness to the accused killer, Dylann Roof. “We forgive you. God have mercy on you.” It was a game changer. For the past two years I have been humbled and honored to walk with this remarkable community through a journey of pain and healing. When you find yourself confronted by hatred and bigotry, how do you respond?

When someone does something to you that hurts or something happens that shakes you to the core, how do you respond? This is a question I bring back to Durham.

Let me share what I was privileged to witness and support: the response of the Charleston community to begin to build bridges and to tear down century-old walls. It was clear our response has made a huge difference!

Charleston is a community that exists because of bridges – there are more than 200 in the area. You may have gone over the magnificent Cooper River Bridge (Arthur Ravenel Bridge). There are a couple of important bridges over the Ashley River. A first challenge living in Charleston was becoming familiar with traversing these bridges. The bridges connected the peninsula where I lived with the surrounding communities.

During my time in Charleston, I became aware of bridges being built over troubled waters, by people who could understandably have built walls of retaliation to protect themselves from future pain and suffering. People from all walks and stations in life came together to share their hopes and fears. They joined hands to overcome injustice and inequity that had long existed. Don’t misunderstand, the grief and anger were not overcome instantly or easily. The choice was made to reach out across divisive chasms to build community.

We face a crucial choice: Do we echo the call for walls that are supposed to make us secure but which isolate us or do we build bridges that enable us to stay connected, to move from our safe, comfort zones to build inclusive spaces? This is not a simple choice. I have no engineering skills but I admire those who construct the incredible concrete structures that enable us to cross over sometimes troubled waters and be connected. I do know that community bridge building is a huge challenge. Someone has said the problem with being a bridge is that both sides claim you lean too far in the other direction. Building bridges requires what my friend, Leslie Winner, is joining with others in Durham to encourage: “respectful engagement.” It requires active listening to those whose experience is different from ours and who view the world from a different perspective. It is essential for us to work together, to establish contact with the “other,” to build bridges of understanding. There are religious and community organizations in Durham already engaged in this crucial work. May their number increase.

Bridge building is not confined to “respectful engagement.” I love what the Rev. Mel Williams, who leads the End Poverty movement in Durham, encourages us to do: “Pick up the near edge of some great problem and act at some sacrifice to yourself.” I should have warned you that genuine bridge building requires a hard hat. Some “great problems’ we face as a community require commitment and sacrifice. How about working to help our neighbors who live in poverty improve their lives? How about working to enable all of our children to develop their gifts in an education and social system that works for every child? How about insuring there is affordable housing for those who need it? How about insuring that our new neighbors feel welcomed and safe? There are more challenges, but this is a formidable list. I am so glad to be back in Durham because I believe that this community has the human resources and commitment to build bridges over very troubled water.

In these troubling and turbulent times, building bridges may sound like a wild dream, so out of touch with reality.

Archbishop Oscar Romero is one of my heroes, He was a bridge builder in El Salvador who worked for the poor and dispossessed against enormous resistance. He literally laid down his life over troubled waters. He once said that “when we dream alone it is only a dream, but when we dream together it is the beginning of a new reality.” How about joining the crew to build bridges of hope to move Durham towards the Beloved Community? My experience in Charleston and Durham leads me to believe it is the hardest job you will ever love.

Joe Harvard is pastor emeritus of First Presbyterian Church in Durham, where he was pastor for 33 years.