SCOTUS, Charleston, Grace

originally posted to the blog Adriana Books on June 26, 2015

I began to realize yesterday that the SCOTUS decision on marriage would probably come down today, and I already knew that Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral was going to be today, with the President giving the eulogy, and it occasionally crossed my mind that they might happen at the same time and cause hell for the networks and for all of us. I imagined a split screen with one side on the Supreme Court and the other side on Mother Emanuel, but I didn’t think much about it and went on thinking about marriage and the Supreme Court.

At ten the decision was announced, and it was much of what was expected, except that at about the 20 minute mark suddenly what I was hearing was from a whole chorus (it sounded like Boston, but I knew Boston was in Turkey singing the Star-Spangled Banner, and right then the day got to me and I started to weep, me alone in my apartment, my husband in Turkey, some large chorus of men singing the Star-Spangled Banner. I couldn’t stop, after that. Every time somebody said, the place of GLBTQ people in America, I started to cry all over again. I thought, as the day went on, that the networks were spending a lot of time on marriage, and I wondered if they were reserving enough time for Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral and for Barack Obama’s funeral oration. I wondered how difficult it was going to be to shift gears from the extravagant celebrations around the Supreme Court in Washington to the grief and mourning in the arena-become-church for thousands in Charleston, South Carolina. I needn’t have worried. The president started speaking, and almost right away, he brought up the Christian notion of grace, the thing you can’t earn and don’t deserve, but are given anyway by a loving God. I’m pretty far away from these things—I guess it’s been 25 years since I’ve been to church—and I was just edging toward being uncomfortable with the man who is the secular head of the nation I am a part of talking fluently of grace when he pulled back and spoke of the nine men and women who were shot and killed last Wednesday. More familiar, because more secular, and therefore less fraught. But he came back to grace almost immediately.

When the families of the dead forgave the murderer, the president called that grace. Grace was the leitmotif which President Obama attributed to Reverend Pinckney, and it was the thread out of which he was weaving his design. Pinckney sounds like a wonderful person, and the president spoke of the way he moved into a room, and his physical grace and even his reassuring baritone. Gifts, all. He did everything early, it seems, became a preacher at thirteen, a pastor in his late teens, a member of the SC legislature in his early twenties. Then the president quoted in their entirety the first several verses of the Christian hymn, Amazing Grace, making the point that grace is amazing, our awareness of it so infrequent, our awareness of its effects so incomplete, and yet still, amazing. In his eulogy, the president spoke precisely of what’s needed now—to be aware of the number of children who are hungry, who still don’t have healthcare, the men and women who don’t have jobs or have jobs that don’t pay adequately. He said our work here is not yet done. He spoke of the corrupting effects of politics. He spoke of the need to be able to listen. He spoke of the need for grace.

Then, with no preface, no invitation to the rest of us, nothing to prepare us for what was to come, the President of the United States suddenly began to sing. In a beautiful clear tenor voice, in that vast arena packed with thousands of mourners, and watched on TV by hundreds of millions of Americans, the president sang entirely alone the opening words of the old Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” The arena, which had been buzzing with the sounds of a very large congregation and from the interactive sounds of a Black congregation speaking back at the pastor, encouraging him on, suddenly was so quiet you could hear a dime drop. The president sang on, alone, “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, and now I see.” And then, finally, at the beginning of the second verse, the congregation found its voice, and people began to sing with the president. And after only a few words the whole congregation was singing, and the whole large arena ringing with the sounds of the hymn. It sounded like a blues version of the hymn—the congregation singing the melody, and the president elaborating on it, singing around and above the melody, using the chorus of thousands in the arena as his own private chorus, enabling him to explore meaning and nuance and feeling. It was achingly beautiful.

It was brilliant. It was an inspired performance from Barack Obama, and it was triumphant. As the audience, once inspired itself, went on with later verses, Obama went back to the microphone, speaking over the sound of the congregation singing the last verses, giving the names of all nine people who had died who had now been given their gift of grace. What seemed true was that it had not been a performance in the way that some speeches are. The speech was so good, so perfectly written, so perfectly fitted to its context, that its conclusion was astonishing—amazing—and exactly right. But it is more than that. It was a transcendent moment. I now know Barack Obama better than I have ever known him before. It is he, after all, who finished his “evolution,” and became the driving force behind the federal government’s switch to our side of the argument. Obama is an amazing man. Even more than I could ever have known when I first voted for him in 2008. And when the image on the TV turned from Charleston to Washington, with its unremitting celebrations, that seemed amazing too, part of the fabric of things, one thread of the warp and the woof of our lives, and then another, and it was not what I had thought it would be. TV had no difficulty dealing with two big events happening at the same time. They had this amazing man at the center of it all, leading us in thought and in song—gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, queer folk, my husband in Istanbul, Charlestonians of all races and communities, and all the Americans from as far away as it was possible to reach, around the world, all conditions of men and women, all ages, the living and the dead. Amazing grace.

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