CHARLESTON—On June 17, a stranger entered Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and joined a Bible study session.
The group of 12 welcomed him and included him in their worship for about an hour when suddenly, the young man took out a gun and started yelling and firing, killing nine people in a hail of bullets.
They included Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, 54, a manager for the Charleston County Public Library system; Susie Jackson, 87, a church choir member; Ethel Lee Lance, 70, the church sexton; the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, a pastor, school administrator and admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University; state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, 41, the pastor of Emanuel AME; Tywanza Sanders, 26, a nephew of Susie Jackson who tried to shield his aunt as the first shot was fired; Daniel Simmons, 74, a pastor who also ministered at Greater Zion AME Church in Awendaw; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a pastor, speech therapist and track coach at Goose Creek High School; and Myra Thompson, 59, a Bible study teacher.
There were also five who survived. Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders, covered her granddaughter and pretended to be dead. The gunman told Polly Sheppard he was sparing her so she could tell the story; and elsewhere in the church, Pinckney’s wife Jennifer and one of his daughters were waiting for Bible study to end.
Dylann Roof, 21, was arrested the next day and charged with nine counts of murder and using a firearm in a violent crime.
When the family confronted him at the court hearing on June 19, something extraordinary happened: they offered forgiveness and the hope that the gunman would find healing in the Lord.
Their reaction sparked a wave of unity and prayers that washed over the entire nation.
Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, who at the time was presiding over the funeral for his brother, offered prayers for the victims and their families.
“When I first heard about the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, I was devastated. How could something so heinous occur in the Holy City? How could anyone’s heart be filled with so much hate?” the bishop wrote in a statement to all parishioners.
“On behalf of the Catholic faithful in South Carolina, I offer my deepest sympathies to the families of the victims and to the members of Emanuel AME Church. I pray that everyone affected by this horror will feel the comforting presence of our Lord surrounding them during this difficult time.”
Mayor Joseph Riley also reacted with shock.
“To have a horrible, hateful person go into the church and kill people [who were] there to pray and worship with each other is something that is beyond any comprehension and is not explained,” he said. “We are going to put our arms around that church and that church family.”
Over the course of the next two weeks, the community has come together in support of the grace and love displayed by the family, and in negation of hate.
Kathy Schmugge, director of the diocesan family life office, said it has been a beautiful lesson in overcoming differences.
“During this time of tragedy, people of Charleston have shown the whole world that we are able to put aside our differences to comfort one another,” she said. “As we all grieve the loss of these nine innocent people, let us also honor their lives by remaining focused on the good they did and not let others distract us with political divisions.”
Miscellany photos/Mic Smith