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  • The ‘Radical’ Welcome TableFaith, Social Justice, and the Spiritual Geography of Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina
  • Priscilla McCutcheon (bio)

Acclaimed author Alice Walker’s (2011) short story “The Welcome Table,” set during the Civil Rights Movement, is a fictional tale of a Black woman who ventures into a white church in the rural South. As the white churchgoers wrestle with how to handle this unwelcomed Black visitor to the church, the women in the church take matters into their own hands, physically throwing the Black woman out of the church. On the doorsteps of the church, the Black woman looks into the distance, sees Jesus and begins to walk with Jesus as he passes by the church. Walker (2011) writes “she [the woman] did not know where they were going; someplace wonderful; she suspected. The ground was like clouds under their feet, and she felt she could walk forever without becoming the least bit tired” (location 974). The story ends with the woman’s lifeless body being found on the road in the Black section of the town. Those who saw the Black woman skipping happily down the road assumed she was talking to herself, and suspected she walked herself to death. Walker’s fictional account of the welcome table helps reveal the complexity of what seems to be a straightforward concept in the Black Christian Church. The welcome table is not a utopian space, where all who come to it experience peace and joy. It may or may not be within the church, as the Black woman in Walker’s story did not find it in the place she suspected. While it is oftentimes assumed the welcome table is found in the afterlife or in heaven, the welcome table is also an earthly and tangible space that many fight to find and have a seat at.

My goal in this essay is to take seriously the spiritual geography of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (Mother Emanuel) in Charleston, South Carolina. Henderson (1993) defines spiritual geography as the way in which humans “organize reality to account for the disparity between the known and the unknown” (470). Spiritual geography largely considers how individuals utilize their internal motivations to rationalize and actively transform the landscape. In this essay, I consider the spiritual geography of the individual along with the spiritual geography of Mother [End Page 16] Emanuel. On June 17, 2015, a white gunman walked into Mother Emanuel, sat for Wednesday prayer service, waited until those in attendance bowed their heads to pray, and opened fire on them. Nine Black churchgoers were murdered that night: Depayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Jackson, The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, The Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons, Sr., Shoronda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thomson. In the aftermath of such a horrific tragedy, there were a myriad of explanations about what happened. Few took seriously how Black liberation and the fight for social justice are crucial to understanding the spiritual geography of Mother Emanuel, a church whose members have always fought to secure liberation for Black people.

In the first portion of the essay, I explore the spiritual geography of the individual and of the church. I argue the church’s spiritual geography is one built on prayer, planning and protest. It is one where individual salvation is directly tied to liberation for the oppressed. In the second portion of this essay, I delve into the interrelationship between the spiritual geography of Mother Emanuel and the landscape outside of the church walls, a landscape where white supremacy is painfully visible. Since its inception, Mother Emanuel has stood in stark contrast and outright opposition to the glaring celebration of the Confederacy in Charleston and across South Carolina’s landscape. Third, I return to Walker’s conceptualization of the “Welcome Table,” and begin to disentangle what a welcome table, in the image of the nine massacred at Emanuel A.M.E, would look like.

the “spirit” of mother emanuel

The “spirit” is largely understood to be individual and difficult to surmise to the outside observer. Members of Mother Emanuel utilize the spirit in discursive, material, and transformative ways. Individual prayer is essential to the spiritual...