New London pastor on church killings: 'If fear wins, the kingdom of God is defeated'

New London — Rev. Florence D.J. Clarke of New London said she “lost it completely” when she learned a man had opened fire and killed nine people during bible study at a church in Charleston, S.C. church on Wednesday.

Clarke, pastor of Walls Clarke Temple African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New London, grew up one-and-a-half blocks away from Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston.

She played on the church steps as a girl. Her elementary school was across the street, and since schools were segregated then and it had no auditorium, the school held plays and activities in the Emanuel church basement.

Clarke belonged to a smaller church called Macedonia A.M.E. Church, less than a block away, so the two churches often joined together.

“My emotions were so raw,” she said Saturday. “One thing is because it happened to a black church again. Secondly, the sacred space was violated. People come for a place of refuge — and evil and hatred walked right in,” she said, beginning to cry. “Hatred sat with them, and hatred did this dastardly deed ... And yet we have to forgive. We have to forgive because that is what we are about. It’s part of our Christian faith. We are a forgiving people.”

Clarke remembers the 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala. She was 14 years old when Emmett Till, 14, was shot and his body dumped in a Mississippi River after he reportedly flirted with a white woman in a store.

Clarke marched in civil rights demonstrations as a student at what was then South Carolina State College, now a university. Police arrested her and others. The NAACP bailed her out of jail, she said.

All of those memories came flooding back this week.

“I couldn’t imagine it, particularly on an evening of bible study and prayer meeting. I could not imagine evil would invade that space,” she said.

Clarke said she did not know the pastor at Emanuel or any of its older members, as she’s been in Connecticut for 40 years.

On Saturday, she was honored for her 40 years in ministry. The ceremony was held at the Port N’ Starboard Banquet & Conference Center in New London.

“She has a very loving spirit and caring spirit about the people in the community and in the church,” said Sister Beverly McKelvin, a deaconess at the church and an organizer of the event. “The love that she has and the heart that she shares with everyone, she’s just a loving person, and a devoted and Godly woman.”

The Greater New London Clergy Association met Friday morning to discuss the shooting and begin talking about how to best respond as a community. Fourteen people attended representing nine faiths.

The Rev. Carolyn Patierno, pastor of All Souls New London, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in New London, issued a statement about the killings that read, in part: “Our hearts bleed for all who are affected. And we are all affected. We re-commit ourselves to the deepest values reflected in the world’s great faith traditions: To speak truth through our rage ... to be love in the face of hate ... to be places of sanctuary in a country that is historically and increasingly unsafe for people of color.”

The statement invited houses of worship to pray for the shooting victims, the congregation, their loved ones, “and for our country that the stain of racism will be reckoned with at last.”

Clarke said the clergy association has rallied around her, and she and Patierno, who met at Connecticut College, spoke about a partnership between the churches.

All Souls and Walls Clarke Temple will join together for an 11 a.m. service on Sunday. Representatives of other churches may also attend.

“We don’t have weapons except prayer and praise. We embrace people, we don’t hate people,” Clarke said. “Even growing up in the south in a segregated community, in a segregated time when they were still lynching and they were still killing, we were still taught not to hate.”

Clarke said arming churches, as some in the country have suggested, would be “an avenue of hate.”

“That’s not who we are. That’s not what we do. Our agenda does not include carrying weapons of warfare,” she said.

The problem is an undercurrent of rhetoric in this country that’s pervasive and hateful and sucks in vulnerable people like a vacuum, including the young white man charged in the killings, she said.

Clarke is also disturbed by the notion of “blue” and “red” states; when she grew up, there were only the “United States,” she said.

Notions of divisions are forged by powerful people and in turn poison minds, she said.

“The thing that’s in my heart right now is if we can realize that one God created the nations, not just black and white, and he created the nations out of one blood. If I cut you and you’re white, your blood is red. If you cut me and I’m black, my blood is red. If you cut me and my faith is different, my blood is red. There is a oneness, there is a commonality in oneness that God gave us.”

After the shootings, she said a member of her church called and said it could have been their church. Leaders of the churches discussed what happened. But they can’t lock their doors, she said.

“If fear wins, then the whole kingdom of God is defeated, because we don’t have a spirit of fear. God didn’t give us that,” she said. “We just have to move forward in faith, and trust God for our safety.”

d.straszheim@theday.com

Twitter: @DStraszheim

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