PORTLAND, Maine — The Rev. Kenneth Lewis’ sister congregation in South Carolina was struck by a racist killing of nine people last week.
On Sunday, his Portland church kept its doors open. And on Monday he called on an audience of hundreds at Merrill Auditorium not to be distracted by other social issues in addressing the root cause of the violence.
“We’re talking about racism, where our character means nothing,” Lewis said. “Every single day, members of my community and your community, reap the fruit of hatred and racism on their jobs, on the streets, in their schools, everywhere they go.”
Religious leaders, political officials and a choir of parishioners from Portland’s Green Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church leaned on song, poetry and faith in the remembrance organized by the city and various community groups. The event started with a reading of the names of the nine victims.
Lewis said the killing is a reminder that racism persists, taking from author Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man” that it can be a matter of ignoring the experience and lives of others.
“I don’t want to be tolerated, I don’t want to be ignored, I don’t want to be placated,” Lewis said. “I want to be seen, I want to be noticed, I want to be understood, I want to be acknowledged, I want to be respected, because I am not an invisible man.”
The killing on Monday prompted South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state’s capitol grounds.
“The flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state,” Haley said Monday.
Donna Loring, a Penobscot Tribal Elder, echoed Lewis’ call that the flag and other issues should not distract from fighting racism.
“We must not take the focus off racism by arguing gun control or the meaning of a flag or the use of the N-word.” Loring said. “And the issue of racism can’t be addressed if we’re talking about these other issues. [They] distract us.”
Some speakers connected the Charleston shooting to the recent police shootings of unarmed black men that have become the subject for activism and increasing scrutiny of who is killed in conflicts with police and how. The British newspaper The Guardian has tallied 529 people killed by police so far this year and detailed the circumstances of their deaths in its project “The Counted.”
High-profile incidents such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the chokehold killing of Eric Garner in New York City and the death of Freddie Gray resulting from a deliberately rough ride in the back of a police van have been focal points for a movement that has consolidated under the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
Younger attendees at the event Monday chanted that phrase in the auditorium at the conclusion of the event, continuing into the lobby of Merrill Auditorium and outside the hall.
Others speaking Monday called for specific action on guns. Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic and Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said racism is a factor in the fight over General Assistance for people seeking asylum in Maine.
“As we know, the word immigrant is used to vilify, and it’s used as code,” Pingree said.
She said that kind of fear — of being gunned down at church — is something foreign to most white people and something that hearkens back to the civil rights movement and a racially motivated attack in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four children.
“For those who went to white churches, we didn’t have to worry about being killed by a bomb on a Sunday morning, or a gun on a Wednesday night,” Pingree said. “Our parents believed we were in the safest place that we could be, and it’s just so hard to believe that we’re here 50 years late mourning innocent churchgoers who were there to study the Bible and were gunned down.”
Lewis said he hopes people take the reminder as a call to action to make change fighting racism, which he said will happen “one person at a time.”
“And so I challenge you, I charge you: Don’t be a spectator, participate,” Lewis said. “Because there are seeds sown and there are weeds that have grown that need to be pulled so that the true fruit our society needs to experience — the fruit of love, the fruit of joy, the fruit of peace — might grow.”