Barry Saunders

Saunders: Slain pastor’s widow shares personal side of Charleston tragedy

Sen. Clementa Pinckney's wife Jennifer Pinckney, center, and her daughters, Eliana, left, and Malana, right, follow his casket into the South Carolina Statehouse, June 24, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Pinckney's open coffin was being put on display under the dome where he served the state for nearly 20 years. Pinckney was one of those killed in a mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Sen. Clementa Pinckney's wife Jennifer Pinckney, center, and her daughters, Eliana, left, and Malana, right, follow his casket into the South Carolina Statehouse, June 24, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Pinckney's open coffin was being put on display under the dome where he served the state for nearly 20 years. Pinckney was one of those killed in a mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. AP

The tall, sandy-haired dude wearing a Duke hoodie, sweatpants and backpack looked like a jock. As he stood at the rear of Page Auditorium on Duke University’s West campus looking around, I wondered whether he was there because of a mandatory classroom assignment.

In other words, had a teacher made him come?

No, he told me. He just wanted to hear what the speaker had to say.

So, apparently, did several hundred other Duke students, faculty and Triangle residents.

The speaker they came to hear was Jennifer Pinckney, widow of Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and a state senator who was fatally shot last year while leading a prayer service.

In church.

Eight other church members were killed at the same time. Dylann Storm Roof, 21, is accused of killing them merely because they were black. They’d invited him into the fold to worship with them, which he did – before survivors said he started shooting them with a .45-caliber handgun.

What was wrought in that Charleston sanctuary was a national – no, an international – tragedy.

Worse than that, it was a personal tragedy. You know how they say “All politics is local?” All tragedies are personal. You see, a nation doesn’t have to comfort a widow or dry the tears of 6-year-old Malana Pinckney and 11-year-old Eliana Pinckney when they realize their daddy isn’t coming home again. Ever.

During the day, I’m busy. I shed my tears at night. I miss him. The girls miss their father.

Jennifer Pinckney, widow of Clementa Pinckney

A nation, despite its outrage, its mourning and gnashing of teeth, doesn’t have to dry a widow’s tears.

“At night is the worst time,” Jennifer Pinckney said from the stage. “During the day, I’m busy. I shed my tears at night.

“I miss him. The girls miss their father,” she said. “I never let them see mama cry, see mama sad.”

Of June 17, 2015, she said, “I looked at the text messages between Clementa and me. He kept saying, ‘Stay home. I have a meeting. I won’t be able to pick you up.’ But I had to be with my husband. When we left Columbia (en route to Charleston), it was a regular day. On that day, my husband welcomed a stranger. He didn’t know him. He just saw someone” with whom he wanted to share a message of love.

Before Pinckney left his church office to go to the sanctuary, she said, “we shared a joke.” It was his turn to pay for their daughter’s dance class, she said, so she told him, “Hold up! I need your credit card.”

“He smiled, and his last words to me were ‘OK, darling,’ ” she said.

Jennifer Pinckney and her youngest daughter stayed in the office during the prayer service, which is where they were when the welcoming worshippers were killed.

“Bullets came through that wall,” she told the Duke audience. “One thing people don’t know is that he tried to get into that room.”

After the program, I waylaid Duke students Taylor Panzer and Gabi Stewart as they left the auditorium. No, they said, they weren’t required by a teacher to attend, but yes, their friends and they felt compelled to be there Tuesday night.

Stewart is a South Carolina native. She, Panzer and some other friends were in South Carolina last June. They attended “Mother Emanuel” two weeks after the mass killing.

Stewart, a classical languages major, said, “We’re members of the B.N. Duke Scholars Program for students from North and South Carolina who exhibit passions for social justice and community service. We were doing an internship in Georgetown, which is about an hour north of Charleston. We were all together in Georgetown when this happened, so we all decided this is something we should come to, to reflect on that event that we were so close to.”

Someone asked Jennifer Pinckney, near the end of the program, if she had a message, if she was hopeful.

“I get sad when I think about a life cut short,” she said. “All we can do” – here, she halted, pausing several seconds, trying to compose herself, although no one could begrudge her for not maintaining composure – “we have to put God first and continue to pray that there is a better tomorrow.”

Is there?

We should all shudder to think that there are young people such as Dylann Storm Roof running around. How do you accrue that level of hatred in only 21 years?

Moderator Eboni Marshall Turman asked Pinckney and the other two guests – the Revs. Kylon Middleton and Chris Vaughn – what justice would look like in this case.

I asked Turman, assistant research professor of theological ethics and black church studies at Duke, the same question. As did they, she mentioned the criminal justice system doing its thing, but added, “Divine justice would look like black people being free to worship in peace, without our churches, our communities being attacked. It would look like a place where all people, but in this instance especially black people, can live free of violence.”

We should all shudder to think that there are young people such as Dylann Storm Roof running around. How do you accrue that level of hatred in only 21 years?

I shudder less, though, knowing there are young people such as the ones I met at Duke on Tuesday night – young people who just want to hear what Jennifer Pinckney has to say and who “exhibit passions for social justice and community service.”

Even after the two-hour program, I still couldn’t figure out whether the slain pastor and senator’s first name is pronounced “Clementa” or “Clementay.” One thing I did figure out, though, is that however one says it, you have to say it with love.

  Comments