What happened in South Carolina felt way too personal.

When I heard that a racist gunman entered Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston during a small group Bible study on June 17 and killed nine people, my body went cold.



Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

I have spent countless Wednesday nights in the chairs of a small black church, surrounded by 15 or so people — just like them.

Usually that bunch includes a handful of the church's older women, or "church mothers" as we call them. There will be one, maybe two people in their 20s who are holding down the fort for "the next generation."

Then there's the pastor, the associate pastors and deacons, and a few children fidgeting somewhat quietly on a chair next to their mother, grandmother, or auntie who brought them out after a hurried dinner, the only reason for them to ever be out on a school night.

I can imagine how a visitor could come in and sit down and be included in the group without question.

We would offer him a Bible and a seat of his choosing, as there would undoubtedly be many empty to pick from. I could imagine how, despite him not fitting in and potentially being a bit distracting, people would try to engage him in the prayer and discussion because that is what we do: welcome the stranger with love.

Congregants hold hands during a prayer vigil for the nine victims killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

So when I heard about what happened in South Carolina, I felt in my gut the terror and horror that must have ensued when said stranger turned out to be a gunman on a mission to eradicate people who share my skin color.

It all felt so familiar.

I didn't think my heart could feel any more deeply for Mother Emanuel, for the lives lost, for the loved ones left behind, for my people, and for our country...

Then I was forwarded this video from the church service at Mother Emanuel that took place just three days before the shooting.

It isn't the greatest quality (though the audio does get a bit better at 0:18), but for some reason, I couldn't stop watching it:

You see, last Sunday, Mother Emanuel celebrated Children's Sunday.

Children's Sunday in many churches is a day where the church honors its young people by both speaking directly to them and handing over the reigns and allowing them to showcase their gifts and talents during the service.

Here, the girls were dancing to a song by gospel artist Tamela Mann called "Lord We Are Waiting." The lyrics to the chorus are:

"Here in this place, we humbly bow
Our hearts are waiting, speak to us now
There is no time here, only Your presence
Show us Your Glory, speak to us now.
Speak to us now."



Why have I watched this short clip over and over again?

Because I can't get over the fact that before the week was out, just three days after these girls were recorded dancing in a service meant to show the church's support and love for them, one of Mother Emanuel's children, a 5-year-old, would play dead to avoid being murdered in the very same sanctuary.

Photographs of the nine victims killed are held up by congregants during a prayer vigil at the Mother Emanuel AMC Church in Charleston. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

This is what racism does: It infiltrates even the most sacred of spaces and terrorizes even the most vulnerable among us.

Many have highlighted the irony of such a heinous act of hate and white supremacy happening in a place of worship during a religious gathering.

But I can speak only for myself, as a black woman who claims the historic African-American legacy of being progressive, activist, and religious. The message is clear.

Racism has no boundaries, and hatred has no shame. We can use all the help we can get — divine and otherwise — as we do the work and fight to end racism forever.

These beautiful children were dancing in a place that was founded by the organizer of a slave rebellion and that served as a hub of abolitionist and civil rights activity for hundreds of years.

The steeple of Mother Emanuel AME Church. Image by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.


They were dancing in a church led by a pastor who only a few months ago stood on the floor of the state Senate to condemn police brutality and who regularly spoke about political participation like this:

A pastor who is no longer with us. Because of hate.

The people of Mother Emanuel have been fighting hatred and racism for generations. Will we join them?

I believe that their cry for God to be with them and to speak to them was not one of religious passivity or weakness but of a recognition of the need for divine strength and wisdom to support them in the massive work that they are called to do on this earth.

That is the work that all of us who believe in freedom and equality are called to do.

More than anything, this dance from a few days before the tragic hate crime was carried out within the church's walls reminds me that hope and beauty always remain.

Each generation will continue dancing even as the fight continues.

Thank you, children of Mother Emanuel. We're all dancing — and fighting — right by your side.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

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