For many in the American South, attending Wednesday night Bible study is not just a tradition, but a way of life. Like-minded folks gather for prayer and Bible study mid-week, together drawing spiritual strength and sustenance from God. Such meetings also often provide opportunities to welcome newcomers, as attendees follow biblical admonitions to welcome the stranger in their midst (e.g., Deut 10:19, Matt 25:40; Rom 12:13). The Wednesday night gathering on June 17, 2015, at historic black church Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) in Charleston, South Carolina, was no different. The doors of the church were open to all, and among the 13 black regulars in attendance that night was a 21-year-old white man.
Tragically, this evening of sincere fellowship, worship and prayer would come to a shocking and bloody end. The young white man, having sat with the group for an hour, suddenly drew his gun and opened fire. In the end, nine people (three men and six women, all African-American) would die, including the church’s pastor. As the country reels from yet another act of violence involving black victims, the police have called this horrific and violent act a “hate crime” while the city’s mayor labeled it an act of “pure hatred.” The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of South Carolina have opened hate crime investigations into the incident. In the media, some are calling the incident an act of racially motivated “terrorism”, since the killer confessed that by his murderous act he intended to “start a race war.”
Thankfully, the suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, was apprehended in Shelby, N.C. the following Thursday morning, during a traffic stop. Police believe he acted alone. Mr. Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder and one charge of weapon possession during the commission of a violent crime. At the hearing, Chief Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr. said he could not set bond for the murder charges, but set bond for $1 million for the charge of possessing a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. (In cases involving people charged with a capital offense or who face life in prison, only a circuit court judge can set the bond, according to the county.) Gosnell said Roof would appear in court in October and again in February 2016.
In the face of such monstrous evil, the heart and mind struggle to understand, and we may grasp at answers to our questions. If people simply sitting in church, praying and studying the Bible can be shot down in cold blood, is there any safe place? Why do people hate so much, murdering others simply because of the color of their skin? Perhaps we think, “If only we knew why such things happen, we could prevent such evils from happening.”
At times like this there is much public speculation about causes and solutions. Is it the alleged easy access to guns in America that makes gun crime violence all too common (as President Obama said to the nation Thursday, suggesting stronger measures on guns are needed)? Yet others counter the President’s argument, saying that if the right of all to bear arms for protection was heeded such incidents would be fewer.
There is discussion of mental health. Was this the act of a mentally ill person, or perhaps the act of a man under the influence of addictive drugs? How do we best monitor people with such issues?
There is discussion of societal influence. Perhaps hateful agitators behind the scenes manipulated an impressionable, unhappy loner to commit this heinous act of racist violence. Or perhaps the strongest contributing factor, the thing we most urgently need to address as a nation, is a residual legacy of racism that remains deeply embedded in our culture, unacknowledged and therefore unaddressed. For a start, remove Confederate flags from public display, some say, as these are painful reminders of a legacy of institutionalized racism.
There is also the “What could have been done better?” brigade. Why were obvious warning signs in this man’s life and behavior seemingly ignored? Why are such signs so often overlooked? Maybe hate speech on social media must be more seriously and carefully scrutinized, so that appropriate action may be taken.
Most poignantly, there is often anguished spiritual wrestling. If God really exists, why so much evil? If God is all-powerful, why does this he not prevent evil acts like this that cause the innocent to suffer? Why, especially, does God not stop attacks against those who seem most dedicated to his service?
With all emotions intensified by raw grief, unhealed pain, and bubbling anger, human reasoning is strained. We seek quick answers and solutions to relieve the gnawing pain we feel. Solution-makers speak past one another, often unable to find any truth outside their own ideological persuasion.
Is there an easy answer to all these questions? No. Yet I believe the answer Christian faith gives is the best place to begin understanding and healing, because it identifies the heart of the matter.
There is a universal truth Christian faith points to as the root issue underlying the evil we encounter in this world, including both evil acts and evil circumstances. This universal truth is the dark presence of sin in the human heart and in creation. It is sin that has left such devastating destruction, evil and misery in its wake. The world is NOT as it is meant to be; this is not the Paradise God originally created.
We ourselves are not who we were created to be, nor what we ought to be. We are fallen sinners, in need of a Savior. But in the face of horrible sin and evil, Christian faith gives hope and a promise: a new world and a new kingdom have arrived in Jesus Christ, who will again return to establish His permanent kingdom, a kingdom where evil and its effects will be fully eradicated. All who trust and follow Him will be included in this kingdom.
The story I want to tell in the remainder of this article is one that exemplifies this powerful hope, that is, the power of God through Christ to overcome sin and by His love, to overcome hate. As Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of one of the victims, Daniel Simmons, declared at Thursday’s bond hearing for the accused killer: “Hate wont win!”
Though I was a stranger to the nine who were murdered, I don’t feel like they are complete strangers. I feel like I know them in some way, because they are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Like believers do, they came together one night to speak of God, to encourage one another and to study the Bible, to find encouragement together in the Word of God and to pray for one another for strength to live out their faith. I’m sure they are imperfect, because like all of us, they are sinners. Yet enough information has emerged to recognize this was an extraordinary and rather exemplary group of human beings, nine men and women dedicated to doing good with their lives and being of service of others in the community. So I want to testify to their story, and to applaud the legacy of love they have left behind. That legacy of love, through Jesus Christ, is indeed our only hope.
Of course, brief paragraphs on a webpage can never encapsulate nine lives, nor the impact they have made. Here we can only briefly list their names and a bit about them (sources: this CNN article and other online articles listed below). The point, as we will see, is that in their time on earth these folks lived well and made a contribution to the betterment of their fellow human beings. They point the way for us all.
- The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, was a state senator and the senior pastor of Emanuel. He was married to Jennifer Benjamin and the father of two children, Eliana and Malana. His colleague, Rep. Mark Sanford, a former governor of South Carolina , paid great tribute to him. “He was a remarkable human being,” Sanford told CNN’s “New Day.” “He had a gravelly, deep voice — a radio announcer’s voice, if you will — and he approached life with that same level of gravitas.” He called Pinckney “a man of character… He was a God-fearing man, a family man.”
- Tywanza Sanders, 26, graduated from Allen University in 2014 with a degree in business administration. The 26-year-old died heroically, trying to save his aunt, Susie Jackson, also one of the victims. This was a young man seemingly intent on going places. His cover photo on Facebook featured only words in light letters set against a dark background. They said simply: “Your dreams are calling you.”
- Cynthia Hurd, 54, worked with the Charleston County Public Library for 31 years. A library statement said she “dedicated her life to serving and improving the lives of others. ” The Library closed all 16 of its branches Thursday in honor of Hurd and the others who died in the shooting. Her brother, Malcolm Graham, a former state senator, called Hurd a woman of faith, saying it was “typical” of her to be at the church on Sunday. She lived with her husband Steve in the east side of Charleston.
- Sharonda Coleman-Singleton was a speech therapist, a pastor at Emanuel AME Church, and a girls’ track coach. She was part of an athletic family, her husband Christopher Singleton a former football player at Tennessee State, and her son, Chris, born in 1995, a baseball player for Charleston Southern University. Coleman-Singleton also had two younger children. Fighting off tears, Chris Singleton described his mother as “a God-fearing woman (who) loved everybody with all her heart. Love is always stronger than hate,” he told reporters.
- Susie Jackson, 87, the oldest victim, was a cousin of Ethel Lee and a longtime member of the historic Charleston church, her grandson told CNN. Tim Jackson remembered his grandmother as a “very helpful person.” She was a choir member and on the usher board of the church. Her son, Walter Jackson, said his mother was a “loving person” who had “no animosity toward nobody.” He reported that when he moved away from his home in the projects on the East Side, his mother gave his room to two young people who needed shelter in the neighborhood. “She took in others,” he said. “She was just that type of person.”
- Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, was a minister at Emanuel AME, a school administrator at Southern Wesleyan University, a passionate Christian and the mother of four daughters. She had a Master’s degree in management, and was an experienced grant writer and a consultant for school districts. The Rev. George McKain recalled Middleton-Doctor as an enthusiastic singer with “a heart for missions, Christian education, loving all people (and) respective of all generations. She could just bring out the praises of God and was a delight to know, a joy and a light in the midst of darkness.”
- Retired pastor Reverend Daniel L. Simmons Sr., 74, was also on the staff at Emanuel and regularly attended the Wednesday night Bible study sessions. He survived the initial shooting at the church, but later died during surgery. According to a statement issued by his family, Rev. Simmons was “a distinguished man who served his God, country, and community well. His dedication to his profession and the AME church left a legacy for many to follow. A loving father and grandfather, he was very proud of his family including the mother of his children, Annie Simmons, his two children Daniel Jr. and Rose Simmons, and his four grandchildren. Alana, Daniel III, Ava, and Anya Simmons.”
- Myra Thompson, 59, was a Bible study teacher and wife to Reverend Anthony Thompson, vicar at Holy Trinity REC in Charleston. According to family friend Bishop Alphonza Gadsden, who had known Thompson for a decade, Myra “was a person who loved the Lord. Her every objective was to please Him in all that she did. She was teaching Bible study when she was killed.”
- Ethel Lance, 70, was sexton (custodian) of Emanuel, a church she attended most of her life. From 1968 to 2002, she worked as a custodian at Charleston’s Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. A former colleague, Cam Patterson, was quoted as saying, “She was funny and a pleasure to be around. And she was a wonderful mother and grandmother.”
Killer and lone gunman Dylann Roof confessed to police his intention was to “start a race war”, yet he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.” Yes, this group of fine men and women he so mercilessly executed met him with kindness, and they leave behind a powerful legacy of love and kindness through their lives. It is one strong enough, let us hope, to help bring healing to a nation divided and tense over racial issues. We can see their legacy demonstrated, in the powerful words of love, mercy and forgiveness victim’s family members offered the killer at the bond hearing this past Thursday afternoon. Read below their poignant, often eloquent words:
Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance
“I just wanted everyone to know. To you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But if God forgives you, I forgive you.”
Relative of Myra Thompson
“I would just like him to know that… I’m saying the same thing that was just said: I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change it, can change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay. Do that and you’ll be better off than what you are right now.”
Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll, I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero…. but as we said in bible study… May God have mercy on you.”
Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons
“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof– everyone’s plea for your soul– is proof, that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”
Sister of DePayne Middleton Doctor
“Depayne Doctor was my sister, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul…may God bless you”
Friends, whether Mr. Roof obtained a gun legally or illegally, was or wasn’t mentally deranged, was a pawn of hate groups or unduly influenced by racist society, the fact remains there have always been those who simply commit evil acts, even in the face of massive goodness and kindness. This indeed is the story of how Jesus Christ was treated. A man of God, He came from heaven with the message of God. From a heart filled with love and compassion, He reached out to the stranger, touched the leper, healed the sick, all the while announcing the good news of the arrival of His kingdom, a perfect, spiritual kingdom not of this broken, sinful world, but pointing ahead to the world to come. He was not saying earthly needs are unimportant– indeed, He demonstrated how much God cares for human needs and human suffering by miraculously healing and providing for immediate physical needs. Yet at the same time, He conveyed that all the good deeds and miracles He did in the name and power of God were but a foretaste of a greater, everlasting spiritual good. He wanted His followers not to focus on the temporal, but on the eternal, to trust God with all their needs– earthly and spiritual. He demonstrated by His words and deeds and fulfillment of prophecy, that He was the long-awaited Messiah. Yet, this God-man, who only did good to all, was consistently attacked by evil men, falsely accused of wickedness, unjustly condemned, and at last crucified naked, alongside criminals, having first been viciously beaten and mocked. In His hour of greatest human need, His friends and closest followers abandoned Him, fleeing to protect their own lives (now that, is my story). Sin infects us all. Even those who follow Jesus Christ so often abandon, disown, and distance themselves from Him. We do so because, though we have received the great mercy and grace of God through Jesus Christ, we remain weak and sinful in ourselves. Indeed, as the sister of victim Depayne Middleton-Doctor testifies, we are all a “work in progress.” Friends, she is right. the Christian is a work-in-progress. Yet the Bible addresses us as saints, not because we are already perfect, but because God sees us as perfectly righteous through the lens of His perfect Son, Jesus Christ.
Let us not let hate win in our lives. Let us overcome evil with good, and continue the legacy of love Christ gave us, and that this group of Christians exemplified. Let us be a light that shines in the darkness of a world that so often rejects Christ because it knows not whom they reject. As we shine our light, reflecting the one true Light of the world, may His goodness, mercy and compassion be brightly magnified for all to see.
Please listen to and watch the videos below. The court testimonials, where family members of the victims made emotional statements addressing the killer, and DePayne Middleton-Doctor singing “Oh It Is Jesus”, both brought me to tears as they reminded me of the overcoming goodness of the Savior.
Sources and further reading
The powerful words of forgiveness delivered to Dylann Roof by victims’ relatives
In Charleston, Raw Emotion at Hearing for Suspect in Church Shooting
Remembering the Charleston church shooting victims
The Victims: 9 Were Slain At Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church
Victims of the Charleston church shooting
Charleston victims: 9 lives lost to family and community
Here’s What We Know About the People Who Lost Their Lives in Charleston
Dylan Roof Confesses He Almost Did Not Follow Through With Massacre ‘Because Everyone Was So Nice;’ Victims’ Families Offer Forgiveness