A.M.E. pastor reflects on Charleston tragedy
Allen Chapel’s Mugala wants to see ongoing dialogue on race
BY PENNY DICKERSON
The Rev. Nathan Mugala had just driven to his Daytona Beach home from Jacksonville when he turned on his television and heard the tragic news that stunned the nation. A lone, White gunman had opened fire during a Bible study at the historical Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
All nine congregants in attendance were shot to death – all were Black and ranged in ages from 26 to 87, including 41-year-old Rev. Clementa Pinkney, a fellow A.M.E. pastor and state senator.
Hours earlier, Mugala, the senior pastor of Daytona Beach’s Allen Chapel A.M.E. was attending an African Methodist Episcopal Lay Conference where he listened intently to an encouraging keynote address delivered by Anthony Scott, whose brother, Walter, was the unarmed Black male shot five times in his back on April 4 by Michael Slager, a White, North Charleston policeman following a routine traffic stop that went awry.
Interacted with Pinkney
For Mugala, the irony was surreal.
“This is a tragedy for all, but the death of Rev. Pinkney is a major loss to the A.M.E. Church. Nobody within the 7th Episcopal District (which encompasses the entire state of South Carolina) will be able to fill his place,” shared Mugala.
“I met him at some of our A.M.E. meetings and he was a very good brother called into the ministry at age 13 and by 18 was ordained in the A.M.E. Church. He was a very sound biblical preacher with great leadership skills. It was a joy and a delight to interact and to share with him. He had a bright future.”
After learning of the Charleston tragedy, Mugala acted with haste and planned a prayer vigil last Thursday night in his own historic church, which was founded in 1910 and has about 500 members.
Mugala said 130 people – Black and White – poured into Allen Chapel in a show of unity that required fewer than six hours to plan.
“The response was remarkable,” stated Mugala. “One of the things that really blew my mind on Thursday is that we had White people come in and just joined with us in prayer. I mean it was a powerful moment.”
The latter serves as a vote of confidence for a country racially divided and torn apart by a series of homicide related incidents involving Black men and White assailants. It has been reported that Dylann Roof killed his victims after telling friends he wanted to spark “a race war.”
The African-American church
has served as a community pillar of protest and peace for centuries. From Daytona to Charleston and beyond. It holds a sacred stature as a place of worship with historical roots. Emanuel being the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore.
Denmark Vesey is one of the founders who planned a slave revolt in 1822, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also visited during the 1960 civil rights movement.
“When I saw what happened on the news, I was righteously angry with the murder of nine innocent lives in Bible study in the house of God,” explained Mugala. “But then after the anger you have to get to that place where you learn how to forgive the person that did the killing.”
A magistrate set Roof’s bail for a weapons charge at $1 million for the nine murders. During his first court appearance, the professed White supremist appeared on a videoconference and several of the victims surviving family members were allowed to speak, and amidst controversy, many offered forgiveness.
“I just wanted everybody to know, to you, I forgive you,” said the daughter of Ethel Lee Lance, one of the shooting victims, who spoke first. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.”
Mugala skirted both debate and judgement to offer: “To be honest, forgiveness is a process as some people can easily forgive because their faith and where are in their relationship with God.”
Exposed to ‘wrong stuff’
The details that have emerged following the massacre depict a killer whose life was wrought with hatred. Roof demonstrated allegiance to White supremacy with pride. Widely circulated images appeared of him wearing a jacket that extolled the flag of apartheid-era South Africa. He also has been seen photographed draped in the Confederate flag while seated on a car boasting a license plate bearing the same.
According to news reports, Roof entered the basement of Emanuel with a specific request to meet the pastor before being asked to participate in regular scheduled Bible study. After sitting amongst members for an hour, he abruptly pulled a handgun from a fanny pack and opened fire.
When his victims pleaded with him to stop, Roof is said to have told them: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. You have to go.”
“The first thing that needs to happen from this experience is that he can turn around and give his life to the Lord,” stated Mugala. “My thinking is that the young man has been exposed to some wrong stuff and some wrong people have actually misled him because he doesn’t have a clear understanding of most of the [racial] things that he was doing or most of the things that he was getting into.”
While Roof likely will be sentenced to a life in prison or death, Mugala has faith that he can be free with a life committed to Jesus Christ. “I believe that the judicial system will have to determine the just punishment for what he has done,” said Mugala. “Whatever due process decides, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be fair.”
Better days ahead
In the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, President Barack Obama offered one of his most “candid” and poignant messages to date on racism in America during an interview for the podcast “WTF with Marc Maron” released on Monday. The president garnered attention by asserting the “n-word,” which some still deem offensive.
“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public,” Obama said in the interview. “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”
Mugala shares the president’s sentiments, but offers hope for better days ahead.
The pastor, who is in his eighth year as pastor of Allen Chapel, is a native of Zambia, the former Northern Republic of Rhodesia, a region once strife with war and racial segregation in South Africa. It has since become a democratic and independent country now known as the Republic of Zimbawbe.
“Out of this bad situation, some good things are going to come. One of those good things is the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse and there will be moments where we can begin to have conversations on race relations and begin to talk to one another better,” he added.
“We don’t need to just be talking about it when something happens. It needs to be an ongoing dialogue, between Black churches and Whites churches, between everyone.’’