Remembering Charleston

Friday, June 17, marks the one-year anniversary of the racially motivated mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members were killed by gunman Dylann Roof at a midweek service: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson.

In response to the tragic event, Alabama artist Liz Landgren painted A Bridge Over Troubled Water, which shows the nine victims ascending, winged and haloed, from the troubled waters of this world.

A Bridge Over Troubled Water by Liz Landgren
Liz Landgren (American, 1974–), A Bridge Over Troubled Water, 2015. Acrylic on wood panel, 36 × 36 in.

Landgren says her visualization was inspired by Aretha Franklin’s 1971 cover of the Simon and Garfunkel song “Bridge Over Troubled Water”:

The original song premiered on November 30, 1969, on the CBS documentary feature Songs of America. Here, as in Landgren’s painting, it was connected with death, being played over footage from the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Paul Simon, who wrote the song, says his idea for it came from a line that Claude Jeter extemporized in the Swan Silvertones’ 1958 recording of the African American spiritual “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”: “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.” The speaker is Jesus; the context, his raising of Lazarus (see John 11:32–33). So whereas “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is often transmitted today as a message from one friend to another, its source material actually identifies that friend as Jesus, the one who lays himself down so that we can cross over pain without drowning in it.

Because of the religious significance of the song, Simon sought to give it a gospel feel. For this task he enlisted the help of Larry Knechtel, who arranged the song for piano (Simon had written it on guitar), styling it after church hymns. Knechtel’s piano playing is one of the song’s most distinguishing characteristics.

So back to Landgren’s painting. The waters of suffering roll off the figures’ garments, a heaviness they no longer bear, as they “sail on by” to be with their Lord. Saints on earth, they now pass into the extended communion of saints in heaven, leaving behind a world that’s roiling with violence and hate, anger and grief.

We lament the deaths of the Charleston Nine. We lament the laws that make it easier to kill. We lament the dividedness of our country. But we celebrate the witness of Sharonda, Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, Depayne, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, and Myra, whose Christian hospitality toward a white stranger cost them their lives.

The painting brings to my mind another song: “All God’s chillun [children] got wings . . . a robe . . . a crown . . . a song,” and when we get to heaven we’re gonna put them on.

Praise be to God, who raises us up—from death and from woe.

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