“Still on the Pages”

Charleston Christians Overcome Hate with Love

On the evening of June 17th, 2015, somewhere around 8:15pm, twenty-one-year-old Dylann Roof casually entered a side door of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, SC. It was a Wednesday, Bible study night, and he quietly joined the little group of twelve regulars. About forty-five minutes later, as they closed their eyes to pray, he pulled out a gun and started shooting. When he was finished, he left the building as casually as he had entered it and drove away. Fourteen hours later, he was apprehended without incident in Shelby, NC. When questioned, he responded flatly, “I did it. I killed them.”

Roof was promptly returned to Charleston and presented on Friday for a bond hearing. Family members of the victims had been allowed in the courtroom, and in an unusual move, the judge invited them to speak directly to him if they so chose. Here is what some of them said:

  • Nadine Lance Collier, who’d lost her mother Ethel: “I just want everyone to know [that] I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.”
  • Felicia Sanders, one of three who survived the shooting: “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Tywanza [her nephew, youngest of the deceased] was my hero. But as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.”
  • Emanuel’s pastor, Rev. Anthony Thompson, who’d lost his wife Myra: “I forgive you, and my family forgives you. And we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change it, can change your ways, no matter what happened to you. And you’ll be okay. Do that, and you’ll be better off than you are right now.”

Nothing about this had been planned. In fact, Rev. Thompson had warned them against speaking for fear of saying something they might regret. But when offered the opportunity, that is what they chose to say to Dylann Roof, the cold-blooded, premeditated murderer of their loved ones.

In contrast to prior shootings, where a lens of racial tension had been imposed onto the narrative, Roof was in fact an open white supremacist who wanted to start a race war. So, here was a most ironic turn of events. Whereas racialized violence had broken out following the shootings of young black men in Sanford, Florida (Trayvon Martin, 2012), and Ferguson, Missouri (Michael Brown, 2014), here were nine innocent black men and women shot in cold blood by an open white supremacist. And, yet we saw no riots. No protests. No marches.

After news reports of the Emanuel Christians’ responses came out, Muhiyidin D’Baha, a Black Lives Matter organizer was quoted lamenting, “that’s the nail in the coffin, man. We’re not going to be able to mobilize.” Thankfully, we will never know what fate may have befallen Charleston if D’Baha and his cohorts had had their way.

“Some people see the families’ forgiveness as submission to centuries of oppression, acts of hatred against black people,” said black author A.R. Bernard. “But, if we look closely, that act of forgiveness demonstrated great courage. I don’t know of any other religious belief system besides Christianity where an innocent man hangs on a cross, suffering immeasurable pain, torment, torture. And he looks out at his accusers, and he prays a prayer, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” That act, he said, “is the greatest act of love, and the greatest act of release that one could ever experience.”

At a later hearing, Felicia Sanders spoke to Dylann Roof again. She had her Bible, which investigators had returned to her several weeks after the shooting. She opened it to the book of Mark, where they had been studying that night and where it’s now indelibly stained with blood. She held it up, “This is my Bible, the blood that Jesus shed for you and me, Dylann Roof. So, I wanted you to see that you just didn’t kill people. You tried to kill the word,” and here she breaks into a genuine smile. “But the word is still on the pages. Still on the pages,” she said it again, with a nod.

Yes, the blood of Jesus is still on those pages. And the courageous love of the Emanuel Christians has been put into a film. You can hear their stories from them directly in Emanuel: The Untold Story of the Victims and Survivors of the Charleston Church Shooting, a documentary produced by Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry and South Carolina native and actress Viola Davis and directed by Brian Ivie. Click here to stream or (better) buy it on Amazon.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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