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I’ve been in Charleston, South Carolina covering the story of the murders of nine African Americans at the Emanuel AME Church for CBS News. I’m exhausted physically and emotionally and the heat is a killer. I don’t remember ever being in heat and humidity like this.
But the emotions here in Charleston are much more taxing than the heat.
As emotionally trying as this story has been on all of us, it’s also been inspiring. The steady stream of people coming to pay their respects; the huge marches and demonstrations of solidarity, support and sympathy; and the outpouring of love and forgiveness by members of the church and members of the community has moved me to tears. Crowds of people continue to come and leave flowers and pray in front of the church. Spontaneous singing and worshipping has been happening every day since the tragedy.
These outpourings of love have not occurred among only one community or group of people. Because the Emanuel AME Church is primarily a black church, you might expect that sympathizers would be mostly black—but that is definitely not true. The gatherings I’ve seen, from small to enormous, have looked like a United Nations of races, colors, classes, backgrounds and nationalities. In the American South, this is nothing short of amazing.
If the murderer wanted to “start a race war,” which he’s been quoted as saying, he accomplished the exact opposite. His horrible act has unified people.
This past Sunday morning I finally had a moment to grab a coffee. I had to make my way through the crowds outside the coffee shop near the church, and I was trying to be as respectful as possible. I saw two women holding signs that read: “Free Hugs.” One of them grabbed me and hugged me and I just started sobbing. The emotion came out of me without warning.
She smiled and said “That’s OK, sweetie, we get that a lot.”
I was a little surprised at my own emotions. “That’s what unity feels like,” I thought. That reminded me of a quote I love from the Baha’i writings:
Love manifests its reality in deeds, not only in words — these alone are without effect. In order that love may manifest its power there must be an object, an instrument, a motive.
There are many ways of expressing the love principle; there is love for the family, for the country, for the race, there is political enthusiasm, there is also the love of community of interest in service. These are all ways and means of showing the power of love…
Love is unlimited, boundless, infinite! Material things are limited, circumscribed, finite. You cannot adequately express infinite love by limited means.
The perfect love needs an unselfish instrument, absolutely freed from fetters of every kind. The love of family is limited; the tie of blood relationship is not the strongest bond. Frequently members of the same family disagree, and even hate each other.
Patriotic love is finite; the love of one’s country causing hatred of all others, is not perfect love! Compatriots also are not free from quarrels amongst themselves.
The love of race is limited; there is some union here, but that is insufficient. Love must be free from boundaries! To love our own race may mean hatred of all others, and even people of the same race often dislike each other.
…All these ties of love are imperfect. It is clear that limited material ties are insufficient to adequately express the universal love.
The great unselfish love for humanity is bounded by none of these imperfect, semi-selfish bonds; this is the one perfect love, possible to all mankind, and can only be achieved by the power of the Divine Spirit. No worldly power can accomplish the universal love.
Let all be united in this Divine power of love! Let all strive to grow in the light of the Sun of Truth, and reflecting this luminous love on all men, may their hearts become so united that they may dwell evermore in the radiance of the limitless love. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 35-37.
The huggers were so sweet, and they brought smiles to everyone who was coming and going to the church. I could tell, that despite the terrible injustice and hatred exemplified by the murders of those nine people in their Bible study class, many people in Charleston, and around the world, had become so united that they were dwelling “in the radiance of the limitless love.”
Charleston has shown the world how you respond to hate.