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Charleston Church Shooting

AME Leader Reflects on Charleston, Sidesteps Gay Marriage in National Address

WASHINGTON -- The senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday criticized attempts to “sanitize” the Black Lives Matter movement, and said that racism and gun violence still linger in the weeks since nine worshippers at a historic AME church in Charleston were killed by a white racist.

Addressing the National Press Club nearly two months after the June 17 tragedy, Bishop John Richard Bryant reflected on the shooting and its aftermath before taking questions on issues including gay marriage and the 2016 presidential contest. Asked directly about the AME church’s stance on same-sex marriage, Bryant sidestepped the question and steered the conversation back towards race.

“The American atmosphere has been filled with gay rights,” Bryant said. “In that you’ve given us this small window to talk about race and guns, I think I want to keep my hour to talk about what America refuses to talk about.”

Image: John Richard Bryant
Rev. John Richard Bryant, senior bishop, African Methodist Episcopal Church, speaks at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015, on the shooting at the historic black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. in June where nine were killed. Andrew Harnik / AP

According to the Human Rights Campaign’s website, AME leaders have publicly opposed gay marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy.

Bryant—who represents an AME district which includes Indiana, Chicago, Michigan, Canada and India and is one of the longest-serving members of the Council of Bishops—spoke at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor of Emanuel AME, telling mourners in reference to shooter Dylann Roof: "Someone should've told the young man. He wanted to start a race war, but he came to the wrong place."

Right now across this country there is a deep feeling of frustration in the souls of people who feel that in this culture, their lives don’t matter. And so they’re saying, ‘Hey, look at me! I’m a man. I’m a woman. I have needs like you do.’

While he pointed to the removal of the confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds as some of the “good stuff” that came out of the shooting, Bryant said that the nation must still reckon with rising gun violence and racism that makes African-Americans invisible to the rest of the country.

“Racism is the need to look down on something, to not see somebody, to become invisible in a culture,” Bryant said. “It’s to not see that over half of African Americans are not graduating from high school. To not see that there is different set of laws for blacks than there are for whites … In the aftermath, we’re still stuck with racism. Those at the bottom are increasing in great number and nothing is being done about it.”

The #BlackLivesMatter movement—which emerged a year ago in Ferguson and has galvanized people across the country as other high-profile shootings of unarmed African-Americans by police officers have happened in cities including Cleveland, Baltimore, New York City and Dallas—is in direct response to blacks’ anger over these circumstances, Bryant explained.

“It’s like owning a pit bull that keeps biting people and you keep defending it because you love it,” he said. “We keep saying the gun will protect us, and yet it seems to make us more violent.”

“We want to sanitize them,” Bryant said. “The way they respond may not be the way we responded years ago … But right now across this country there is a deep feeling of frustration in the souls of people who feel that in this culture, their lives don’t matter. And so they’re saying, ‘Hey, look at me! I’m a man. I’m a woman. I have needs like you do.’ It’s the response of the human soul that’s been pent up and ignored.”

On gun violence, Bryant said the country “has a love affair with the gun.”

“It’s like owning a pit bull that keeps biting people and you keep defending it because you love it,” he said. “We keep saying the gun will protect us, and yet it seems to make us more violent.”

He added that he does not want to see churches armed—as suggested by an NRA board member shortly after the Charleston shootings.

“There is no move afoot to arm the church,” Bryant said. “We have to trust God … I would hate that the church follow suit of the culture.”

Bryant challenged the church -- black and white -- as well as law enforcement and the 2016 presidential campaigns to deal with gun violence and the racial and class divide in America. When asked what pastoral guidance he would offer Republican firebrand Donald Trump, Bryant quipped: “You must be born again.”

“If you listen to the candidate and what he’s running on, it’s money,” Bryant said of Trump. “We need leadership that sees us, that sees our burden is their burden. Anybody who says, ‘I’m worth so much, so I can be your leader’ ... No. You must be born again of the spirit and of the soul to be the father of the nation -- or the mother -- of a nation.”