Charleston Reflections, Eliana Mastrangelo

Eliana Mastrangelo, NYU '11

Twenty four hours after returning from Charleston, I still don't have the words to describe what it was like to stand broken hearted with the people there . The terrorist attack at Mother Emanuel AME Church last Wednesday is incomprehensible not because the racism of the killer is extraordinary,--it is not--but because it is hard to fathom how nine people could be gone so instantly.

Rev. Dr. William J Barber said of this tragedy, "the perpetrator has been caught, but the killer is still at large." For the past year, the American public, and Jewish communities have been confronting the racism that lives deep in the institutions of this country and in the hearts of its citizens. As a faith-based community organizer, I grapple everyday with the question of how to pursue justice and reconciliation in the face of racial hatred. When the Mother Emanuel Nine were murdered and the opportunity to go to Charleston was presented by Rabbi Sarna something deep in my gut told me I needed to go. Perhaps I felt so deeply moved because because the attack occurred in a church, which is a kind of terrorism that Jews understand all too well, or perhaps it was because this was a chance to respond in a uniquely Jewish way. As a community organizer, I am used to responding to tragedy with organized political activity, but when I decided to join the delegation from NYU's Bronfman Center, I knew it would be a very different experience.

When I think about what it means to grieve with the grieving, I remember the bone crushing hug I shared with Dolores, a member of Mother Emanuel. I hear the sound of hundreds of people singing "We Shall Overcome". I taste my tears in my mouth, during the Sunday worship service at Mother Emanuel. I hear the exhaustion in people's voices when they said,"I'm hangin' in." 

It was a privilege to attend the worship service at Mother Emanuel on Sunday morning--to sing and pray and grieve with that community in their home, their holy place, their violated refuge. During the message (the preaching) Reverend Norvel Goff spoke powerfully about the need to grieve and then to work for justice. " The blood of the Mother Emanuel Nine requires us to work not only until justice in this case, but for those living on the margin of life, those less fortunate than ourselves, that we stay in the battlefield until there's no more fight to be fought."

I am still trying to reckon with my own swirl of grief and rage as well as process the experience of supporting others in their mourning. And I'm more aware than ever, that I must also reckon with the reality of racism that lives within me and all around me.  For now, I'm just grateful for the chance to hug and sing and pray on the battlefield, to seek justice and pursue peace.