When Death Meets You at Retreat

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Last month, I was at a writing retreat in a space designed to nurture creativity and clarity. I was in a space where death was not allowed to be, where I was supposed to be insightful, to reflect peacefully, to swim in my internal depth and cherish the weight of my words and ideas. The space was tranquil. My room overlooked a lake; I journeyed in nature with newfound friends in inspiration and ideas that tickled the imagination. I prayed in a chapel too.

It was supposed to be retreat; I was supposed to be away.

I was supposed to be separated from the real world in order to write about it in complicated and poetic language. And in this separation, I was supposed to establish a connection to those like me—who enjoyed words connected to ideas.

But Charleston startled my awayness as death met me at retreat.

Death had a prominent hold on the news of the next day and held me in a tight grip.

I was harshly thrust into the reality of why I was there—I was at this workshop to work on a piece about my nephew and his complicated identity as a black boy in Charleston.

Ironically, Charleston stubbornly found its way to me pronouncing its importance at the expense of nine lives, ten since April.

Charleston was too close to home. It hosted people I loved.

Early in the morning the day after the news broke, I found myself weeping in words and tears. I was frustrated. And tired. What was I to do with this confirmation of my fears? I did not want my words and worries to be true.

It troubled me that soon after, I would be in a room where the art of allowing words to speak would flow freely in story and writing, writing and stories other than Charleston.

Other than the lives that needed attention, prayers, and lament.

My retreat from the hardship and death’s reminders thrust me into the heart of it reminding me that black skin, and black church buildings are too often forced to be hospitable to death and its cohorts, grief and despair.

The beautiful sadness of the black church in the United States is the ease in which it continues to be a space of grief, loss and longing—of African Americans lamenting the racial and social disadvantage of life in a land tainted with harsh history towards them because of their skin and of the reality of deadly hospitality even to supremacy’s ministry of presence.

For me, the black church has become a lamentable good. It is a necessary part of life and support in the black community. But its courageous existence signals fear in others so much so that its members can be gunned down or its support beams must burn.

Church is supposed to be sanctuary, space to retreat to a community who loves on each other showering love and support, secrets and prayers, wondering together in scripture and listening to each other speak wisdom that only God could conjure in such spaces as her people curious to discern her will together.

Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, Depayne, Clementa, Tywanza, Daniel, Sharonda and Myra were supposed to seek life in each other for a few hours Wednesday night. They were supposed to conjure up rest and relief for the remaining week ahead.

But their life together was interrupted as death sauntered in the door and met them at retreat.

Tomi Oredein

Tomi Oredein

Tomi Oredein is a Th.D. student at Duke in Theology and Ethics as well as a writer and poet. She is currently doing her best to mediate the awkward encounters of when her academic and creative voices meet. She enjoys asking questions and truth-telling, as she believes they lead to lasting friendship and powerful dialogue.
Tomi Oredein

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