This summer will mark five years since the horrific tragedy at the Mother Emanuel AME church downtown Charleston that took the lives of nine innocent Christians.
As the community prepares to commemorate and honor these victims, local church leaders with the Lowcountry Faith Community Leadership Council (LFCLC) are already taking steps in preparation to bring the community together leading up to the anniversary.
The LFCLC is comprised of leaders of faith communities in the tri-county area with a mission to change conversations, hearts and lives. The group is led by Rev. Ginger Litman-Koon and Ambassador Sonya Buncum.
Litman-Koon serves as a co-pastor at All Saints Lutheran Church in Mount Pleasant with her husband, Kris. She explained that over the past few years of gathering for events, local church leaders have started to realize that they had a lot of similar passions related to social issues and how they felt they could make a difference.
She said together they made a decision instead of waiting for the next religious speaker or event to come to town, they would begin scheduling meetings. As they began to know one another, the council formed and they made a goal to continue conversations that will have a larger impact on the tri-county area. The group is comprised of roughly 12 clergy members and leaders from faith communities in Mount Pleasant, North Charleston, downtown Charleston, Moncks Corner and West Ashley.
“When we get together as just the leaders, we’ve learned so much about one another just by eating lunch, visiting each other’s congregation or just being in each other’s spaces. We don’t want it to stop at just the leaders. We want all the folks in the community to start to get the same experience by sitting down across the table from somebody that they may not have ever shared a meal with or talked about faith with,” Litman-Koon said.
Author Rev. Rob Schenck from The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute (TDBI) in Washngton, D.C. spoke at All Saints Lutheran Church in February last year. Litman-Koon described TDBI as a peace-promoting nonprofit and said Schenck’s discussion addressed violence and the role churches play in making a difference when it comes to gun violence and violence in general. Litman-Koon said this inspired the pastors decision to start planning their upcoming events.
She said that it is vital that the communities here not forget about what happened five years ago as time passes. Beginning this month, the faith leaders of LFCLC, broken down by area, will begin their own community–wide small group studies titled “Conversations for Community.” The six week small group study’s theme is called “Fully Protected” based on a series by the TDBI. The themes of the study are community, fear and violence.
“The idea is just to get to know your neighbor to use the conversation as a vehicle to start to see people as people; to start to break down some of those barriers. And really, I think, pretty much all of what we do, is still just trying to stand up for the legacy of the Charleston Emmanuel nine,” Litman-Koon said.
Litman-Koon said as the fifth commemoration of the Mother Emanuel shooting approaches, gun violence was the first topic the faith leaders decided they wanted the hosting pastors to lead discussions on. She explained the goal of the study was to get an entire town to complete the same Bible study and get to know each other across some of those denominational or racial boundaries by having a common conversation.
“They just kind of want to open up conversations about why do we mistrust our neighbors; what do you think is behind community violence and how can we learn to move past fear and toward forgiveness,” Litman-Koon explained.
The sponsor co-hosting churches for the East Cooper area’s “Conversations for Community” study are All Saints Lutheran Church, Hibben United Methodist Church, Olive Branch AME Church and Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church. Litman-Koon explained other area churches will also assist with and attend the study.
Kicking off immediately following Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, East Cooper area residents from all religious backgrounds are invited to join the six week study every Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. beginning Jan. 21 through Feb. 25 at Olive Branch AME Church.
Litman-Koon finds it a happy coincidence that most groups of the council are starting the studies during the week of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, which also happens to be the Week of Prayer for Christian unity. She explained it was Olive Branches’ Rev. Richard Harkness’ idea to start it right after MLK weekend.
“A lot of times communities will commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend alone, instead of coming together so we thought this was a good opportunity to bring everyone together,” Litman-Koon said.
A light meal will be served each Tuesday evening for all that attend the study, at no fee. Litman-Koon said that this is to create fellowship over a meal, while having very important discussions.
The religious leaders in other municipalities are deliberating the same bible study at the same time as the churches in Mount Pleasant. Some meeting in coffee shops and others in churches.
“We’re hoping that once we start these relationships with our neighboring faith communities that we can expand the conversation to things like racism, sexism and socio-economic challenges. Because we really believe that’s where it starts. You build your values in your faith community. And sometimes you also build your present prejudices there too,” Litman-Koon said.
In the spring of 2019, All Saints Lutheran Church’s Called to Care Ministry held a pilot program testing out the study’s curriculum. Litman-Koon said that church members from several different denominations gathered for this and that all attendees equally left with the same positive result.
As they plan to expand their discussion themes in the future with more group studies, Litman-Koon shared that she thinks the entire area is taking positive steps towards continuing the legacy of the grace shown by the Mother Emanuel church and Charleston community.
“I feel like we are on the right track. The people, especially in Mount Pleasant, just seem to be really community focused in a really exciting way. They want to get to know each other and they want to step up to make a difference and lend a hand,” she said.
In addition to the “Conversations for Community, LFCLC is also planning an event for Saturday, May 2 called “Faith and Firearms Panel Event for 5th Emanuel Commemoration.” Litman-Koon said the panel would be comprised of individuals that produce materials to encourage difficult conversations. She explained the LFCLC is hoping to invite the community at-large and mostly faith leaders to the event to hear how they can start these kinds of conversations at their congregations and with their neighbors.
The LFCLC meets every other second Tuesday of the month at noon and is open to faith leaders in the area from all congregations. If you have questions about the council or the upcoming “Conversations for Community” study, you may contact Litman-Koon at firstname.lastname@example.org.