On Wednesday, the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council had its big annual community luncheon at the convention center. I was there, as a member of the Council, but I had not made a reservation, so I took pot luck in being assigned to a table. I ended up with one at the back that had to be added because we had such a big crowd. I knew a couple of people at the table, but met some new ones as well, including an older (slightly older than I am, that is) black lady named Minnie (sp?).
Our outgoing chairman, Elliott Epps — former head of City Year, and a classmate of my daughter in law school — opened the event with a gag from the news: He said that yes, he was a Caucasian male, and he was not asking us to believe he was anything else. So people laughed, and I said something to my tablemates to the effect of, “Elliott, we can tell!” Minnie smiled and said something like, “I don’t know; he looks just like some of my cousins.” And true, he does have dark hair, but that’s about it.
At that moment, we could still have a laugh about things in the news, even things in the news that bore on race.
Hours later, that would all change.
This morning, CRC Executive Director Henri Baskins sent out a note to all board members letting them know about the statement I had drafted yesterday. Among the responses was this personal reflection from Elliott, which he has also posted on Facebook. I asked him whether I might share that with y’all and he generously agreed:
I have been numb today. Clementa Pinckney was my best friend from graduate school when we spent two years together getting a Masters in Public Administration at the University of South Carolina. Two months after leaving City Year Boston in 1997 I met him when he was 24 and I was 26 when we both started grad school. He and I worked as office assistants in the office of government and international studies in order to get the tuition reduction. This man at 24 had his own congregation in Jasper County; had his own constiuents in Jasper, Beaufort and Charleston county, was taking a full load of graduate degree classes; but still managed to work 20 hours in office with me making copies and stuffing faculty boxes. The humility. The grace. The strength. He epitomized the servant leader.
He and I both entered our dating phases with the women we were to marry. What a fun time! We went to each other’s weddings. He introduced me to a lifetime friend, mentor Steve Skardon which led to get me a job for the Palmetto Project to work on improving race and community relations. He is the only person I have walked door to door for a large part of James Island when he ran for State Senate. Later we had our oldest children a year apart. When my mother got cancer, Clem drove to Aiken and prayed with her and over her, holding her hand weeks before she died. Sadly years later his mother died also of cancer.
Clem probably drove more than anyone in this state that was not a professional truck driver. When I knew him his blue car was seriously over 300,000 miles. His district when he was elected to the SC Senate is bigger than the state of Rhode Island.
As I watched all of the coverage and I heard the President, Congressman Clyburn, his colleagues in the SC Senate and the House, and so many people talk about Clemnta this was not how it was supposed to be. Clementa was always pulled between politics and the church. I always wondered and thought from our discussions about the future and our dreams that he would either be Bishop of the AME church or the successor to Congressman Clyburn to represent SC in Washington. All of those leaders speaking about Clementa was not weird because I always expected because of his gifts that he would be talked about by them and with them. But never in my worst nightmare like this. Not about this. What a terrible, terrible waste.
Someone from the SC Senate said I thought beautifully, “Out of all of us. How can this happen to gentlest? How can this have happened to the best of us?” He called him the “Conscience of the Senate.” The book by Norman Vincent Peele entitled “Why do bad things happen to good people” could in this case be renamed “Why do the worst things happen to the best people?” My thoughts go to Jennifer, Eliana and Malana. We must lift them and the other families affected by this chaos.
It is time to mourn but when we move forward we need to follow Clemnta’s lead and listen to that incredible voice in our heads and our heart when we work together on how to solve this. I miss you Clem!