The Post and Courier of Charleston reports that Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church (or Mother Emanuel) on Wednesday night in the midst of the evening Bible study. Although a stranger to this congregation, he was welcomed into the gathering by The Reverend Clementa Pinckney in the church basement and repeatedly invited to participate.
According to this same news account, the text under consideration was Mark 4:16-20, an explication of the Parable of the Sower that appears in 4:3-9. This is one of the more challenging parables in the New Testament, especially since this chapter includes difficult language about insiders and outsiders in 4:11-12. The Bible study that night focused on where the sower places the seed and the imagery of soil to describe various responses to God's work in the world.
I do not know what Minister Pinckney and the others present specifically discussed as they engaged the text, but the actual verses are compelling. The group at Mother Emanuel studied Jesus' words about seed on rocky ground, which endures for a while and then disappears. They talked about seed among the thorns, where Jesus likens this to persons who make idols out of wordly concerns and treasures. Finally, Jesus gets to the climax of this section: "And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundred-fold" (Mark 4:20).
Had Dylann Roof listened to these verses and looked around the room, he would have realized he was sitting among "the ones sown on the good soil." Had he listened, he might have heard the insights of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a teacher (speech specialist), mother, and the track coach at Goose Creek High. He could have heard the wisdom of The Reverend Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., a 74 year-old pastor, or Susie Jackson, the 87 year-old woman who participated regularly in the Bible study. Reverend Pinckney was known at the church and around the state of South Carolina as a person of insight, the moral conscience of the South Carolina legislature, and a pastor who always had a good word for anyone. Had Dylann Roof listened, he might have sensed the profound hospitality that the church members extended in welcoming him into the basement that night, a hospitality that is a defining characteristic of African American congregations in this country.
Jesus emphasizes the important task of listening throughout this section of Mark. Some form of "Hear!" or "Listen!" appears nine times in this section of the Gospel. Jesus shouts, "Let anyone with ears listen!" (Mark 4:9). Hearing in this context does not simply mean processing the words, but understanding our place in the human family, and from the perspective of this parable, obeying God with love in our hearts.
The reality is that Dylann Roof had no capacity for listening to the Gospel that night. He had rejected any ability to hear in favor of an ideology of white supremacy, with the malicious assumption that these faithful disciples were his enemy. He had rejected the Parable of the Sower in favor of alternative symbols, such as the flags of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe during separatist days and apartheid-era South Africa. He had rejected it in favor of the Confederate flag, which has been used so maliciously to support segregation and violence, a flag that still hangs on the grounds of the State Capitol in Columbia. Despite attending public school and growing up in a town (Gaston, SC) with a large African American population, he became steeped in an evil ideology that persists in racism. He had lost his capacity to listen.
Jesus reminds us that the good soil bears fruit, and one of the most tragic aspects of this episode is that these were nine individuals whose lives were a powerful testimony to the power of hope, service, and hospitality. Dylann Roof betrayed their trust in a profound way, and I doubt he listened to a word of what Reverend Pinckney or anyone else said on Wednesday night about Mark 4. But their lives can be an eternal reminder of our responsibility to listen to each other, to rid our nation of the immoral blight of racism, to show the same hospitality that the members of Mother Emanuel showed to Dylann Roof, and for those who are believers, to have faith that the reign of God always triumphs over evil.