December 11, 2018

A night at First AME Church

The first surprise came when I typed 2270 S. Harvard Blvd into my phone, and discovered that it's only 4.8 miles from my synagogue, Congregation B’nai David Judea, in the Pico Robertson neighborhood. I had always assumed that it was much farther away than that. Actually, that it was infinitely far away. But – surprise! – it's right here. And this turned out to only be the first of several surprises on that the evening held in store. 

A handful of our shul-mates and I felt compelled to go to First AME of Los Angeles on Thursday night. The need emerged from a sense that the work of creation itself was teetering. That a brazen, calculated fully intentional attack upon decency, upon goodness, upon humanity, upon hope itself had been perpetrated. That a violation of everything that is sacred, indeed of the very notion of sacredness, had occurred. Indeed, as one of the pastors who spoke at the service noted, the very last thing that the nine victims had done in their lives, was to welcome a stranger into their church, into their prayer gathering, to demonstrate love for another person – a sacred act. We now know that the shooter almost changed his mind in light of the kindness that he had been shown. But in the end, he proceeded to gun them down. He gunned down the pastor. He gunned down an 87 year old woman, and seven others. And the earth seemed to stop dead in its orbit, waiting to see whether or not the decent, the good, the hopeful among human beings, would push back. And so I went, we went, to help push back.

And what unfolded there that evening, was remarkable in so many different ways. On the broadest level, it was the remarkable experience of being inside the kind of drama that we are accustomed to seeing only in the movies. We were, in real life, rising together in the name of Right and Justice and Truth in their most essential, irreducible forms, as pristine and as pure as they were on the day that God created them. It's not often that you can actually feel abstract ideas with your physical senses. And for that alone, Dayenu. That alone would have made it the best two hours I had ever spent in Church. 

But there was so much more. Two of the evening's recurring themes were hope and faith. Not bitterness – even as the history of the Black struggle in America was recounted. Not a lamenting of Black victimhood – even as the story of Mother AME Church in Charleston, a story that began 50 years before the Civil war, and included numerous episodes of racist violence and destruction – was recounted. For as Sari remarked,” the entire history of the AME church is one of hope for the future, belief in a better time to come, the spirit of never giving in or giving up, even when unspeakable horrors unfold.

And in addition to hope and faith, the evening was also about gratitude to God for his love, and trust in God, that He would with us as we continued the struggle. As the Pastor whose ministry is Skid Row remarked, “God may not always come when we call Him, but He'll arrive at the right time.”

And towering above all of these, was the importance of love. Love not as a feeling that one hopes arises spontaneously in one's breast, rather love as a conscious moral decision. A conscious moral decision – a conscious religious decision – that is made in the effort to alter the course of events, to change the course of history, to push violence back through the demonstration of love toward others. Though no one specifically quoted them, the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King were hovering in the air. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” And in a real-time expression of love and its importance, one speaker after another, expressed his love for the LAPD officers who had been assigned to protect the event, and asked that this love be conveyed to Chief Beck. As Joey reflected,” at a time when the relations between the black community and the police are somewhat fraught, only graciousness and appreciation were being expressed for the work the police are doing“. I noticed, that as the evening began the officers were standing, lining each side of the room. But at some point, they sat down, in the pews, and became part of the congregation itself. 

And the AME choirs, man alive, do they know how to sing! Not just to sing but to pray, and not just to pray but to soar. There is no way I can do justice in describing what was happening in the room when the choir reached the refrain of a song called “You are Important to Me”, a refrain that just kept getting louder and bigger and more insistent with each of its many, many repetitions, 

I pray for you; you pray for me.
I love you, I need you to survive.
The choir began pointing at the audience, who soon began pointing back, 
I pray for YOU; YOU pray for me.
I love YOU, I need YOU to survive. 
It was spellbinding. And God was present in the room. 

And all this faith amidst struggle, and love amidst grief brought home to us again that living in our bubble we are missing out on a big piece of life's beauty and richness and calling. We live in a wonderfully diverse city, which abounds in opportunities to revel in the diversity of God's creation, to learn from one another, and to love in new and unexpected ways.

And though it can honestly be said that we received much more than we gave last night, what we gave was noticed. Residents whose homes we passed as we walked the few blocks from where we had parked, thanked us for coming out. As did the ushers at the doors who welcomed us in. And as we were leaving, a woman who seemed to be an AME regular threw her arms around my wife Sari and then around me. I was thinking about how much we appreciated it when people of other faith communities came to the Bring Back Our Boys rally in Pan Pacific Park, exactly a year ago. Showing solidarity is always worth more than the time or effort it costs. And it really requires nothing more than showing up.

These were without doubt, the best (and only) two hours I've ever spent in church. And the truth is that we do all need each other to survive. And that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David Judea, an Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles.  He contributes to the blog Morethodoxy at