David Saliba: A bright star shines through Charleston’s tragedy

Pastor Saliba with classmates
Pastor Saliba (far right) with classmates from Wesley Theological Seminary including Pastor Clementa Pinckney (center)

Our world suffered a terrific loss Wednesday evening, as tragedy struck the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Among those who lost their lives was The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Clem was a friend of mine. Until Wednesday I was blessed to have never known a personal friend to be murdered, especially so senselessly. In the wake of such darkness and hate I shared these words on Sunday morning with my congregation about Clem and the light he shared.

For the last 3 1/2 years Rev. Pinckney and I were in the same doctoral studies class together at Wesley Theological School in Washington, D.C. Clem was a bright star in our class. Clem was not only thoughtful about our work, but also one who was willing to share a unique perspective on the subjects we were studying, being that he served his community through the platform of his state office and the pulpit of his historic church with its rich heritage.

Clem started most mornings in class exchanging pictures of his two girls with me and a couple of others. He was the kind of minister who bravely effected change without trying to stir up hate or unhelpful rhetoric. He served God with his whole self, his community with compassion, his office with the utmost integrity. He truly “did justice, loved mercy, and walked humbly with God” in all that he did. He was the hardest-working pastor I have ever met in the U.S., taking his service to his state and his community organizing just as seriously as he took his pastorate. I was writing a project once about partnerships between AME, CME, and UMC congregations, and Clem took a great deal of interest in it. I could hear in his voice and witness in his spirit how excited he was about the possibilities of partnerships between faith communities representing different races of people. That was a huge part of his heart, and all anyone can do anywhere to help create or nurture those partnerships will truly honor his memory.

When my wife and I announced on Facebook that Elizabeth was pregnant, Clem contacted me. “I wanted to just say congrats,” Clem said in his joy-filled voice. And then with a sense of graceful authority he said, “I want you to know that you will be a great dad, and we need more good dads.” The amazing thing about this is that he was in the middle of organizing Jasper County for transformation, leading a congregation that, like any, always need their pastor, running a state senate office, and being an excellent father and husband. He was a leader of the church and state, working diligently and consumed by the needs of many. Yet, he paused to talk to me in a meaningful way that I needed to hear. He interrupted his life to build a relationship, to be a neighbor. I want to be more like Clem.

I feel that the only hope and prayer I can muster is for the light and love of Christ to win again victorious. It was very difficult to receive this news on our mission trip to Mexico, but in many ways it was a unique opportunity for God to gift me hope. I was made hopeful because we were taking part in the important ministry of transformation. The young hearts and minds of the youth from Greenville, Alabama and the youth of Chemax, Mexico were being shaped in the way of love – the way of Christ. We were serving and being served by people who looked differently, spoke differently, came from different cultures, and the differences were celebrated by both our team and the people of Chemax. Difference was not a source of fear, but an opportunity for the enrichment of our souls. Relationships were made, minds shaped, and hearts transformed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot overcome darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot overcome hate, only love can do that.” So we join people all around our nation and the world in prayer for Emanuel AME, for the families and friends of the victims, and for God to heal us with light and love. May we each become more and more a minister of God’s light and love. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Bring your peace.

David Saliba is senior pastor at Greenville First United Methodist Church in Greenville, Ala.


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