During the summer months the church I serve hold their weekly worship service on Wednesday nights. This summer we are reading the book Grateful, The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks by Dianna Butler Bass. This reflection is based on chapter 5 and all references are from the book unless otherwise noted.
Last week we spoke about individual gratitude and the need for us to make a conscious choice to be grateful as well as to seek out those positive moments in our lives. I reminded us that positive moments are all around us and all we need to do is look for them and hold on to them. Tonight we are going to expand upon the personal side of gratitude with a discussion about collective or community gratitude.
Gratitude is not something we can do alone. Sure, we might be all alone on a hillside, watching the sunrise, but when we have the sensation of gratitude it is for the sunrise, for the place where we are, for the time to be there, and perhaps, for God for, once again, providing a beautiful sunrise for us to witness. So we are “grateful for something, grateful to someone, and, often, grateful with others” (Bass pg. 97).
Gratitude always points toward someone or something else the “‘me’ always leads to ‘we'” (Bass pg. 97). When we are grateful, we acknowledge that we are part of a much larger world and that there exist people around us who are also grateful and perhaps, are there to help us and perhaps, we are there to help them. However, “gratitude is not about repayment of debts. It is about relationships” (Bass pg. 98).
On June 17, 2015, thirteen people gathered in the basement of the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Church in Charlottesville, South Carolina. There were there for bible study and prayer. This group gathered each week in this historic black church, the oldest black church south of Baltimore, for prayer and study. It was in this church in 1822 that Denmark Vessey and 34 others were hanged because they were suspected of planning a slave revolt in the town. This church is no stranger to hate.
But about 9:00 pm as the bible study was coming to an end and all of the heads in the room were bowed, a 21-year-old man took a gun out of his backpack and started shooting, he reloaded five times and, before he fled the room, 9 of the 13 people there were dead including the pastor. The survivors reported that, while he was shooting, he screamed, “I have to do it. You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” The young man was later caught, tried, convicted, and now faces the death penalty for his hate.
However, the most extraordinary thing happened later that night and the next day. Church members began to gather to support each other. By all accounts, the church is a very close-knit family, and they needed to be together to help one another. The press was gathering and started asking questions of the church members, and they were shocked when member after member started talking about forgiveness and how they needed to forgive this young man for what he had done and for what he had taken from them. At the sentencing hearing they came and pleaded for his life, but their plea fell on deaf ears. The spoke of the need to show this young man love and that killing him would remove that, and that love would turn to hate, and they would be no better than him if his life were taken.
This is an extraordinary example of gratitude. They were grateful to be alive, but they were also grateful that they had the capacity to forgive someone who hated them with such a passion that he had to resort to violence.
There was one story that reported the shooter saying that he almost changed his mind because they were so friendly and accepting of him but unfortunately his hatred ran too deep, and he carried out his plan.
Gratitude is not about repayment it is about relationships, their strength and their healing came through the community, and it has been an example for me and my ministry since it happened.
Gratitude is a social concept, and it is about being with one another and being in life together. There is a thread that is woven between us which is very fragile, and these strands weave our lives together.
As much as we need to develop that ethic of gratitude on a personal level, as we spoke about last week, our most profound expressions of gratitude move us out of our own self and our own isolation and into a connection with the community. Gratitude is powerful and can transform us and transform a society.
The best part is gratitude is contagious and can spread but it needs to have a start, a foothold, and that begins with us. Gratitude should connect us all, and that means to connect us all across racial and ethnic lines which will allow all of us to unite as a community rather than being isolated and only concerned about ourselves.
However, be warned, gratitude will change us, and we will start to look at people differently. The young man who pulled the trigger in the church almost changed his mind because he was grateful for how he had been treated, perhaps this was the first time anyone had treated him with kindness, but they almost, by their expressions of love, almost convinced a killed not to kill.
Gratitude comes when we least expect it, but, sometimes we have to look for it. Let us pray that we can be as grateful as the saints at Mother Emmanuel and rise to that level of gratefulness and love in our lives and in our community.