The Charleston Church Massacre And 'Grace Will Lead Us Home'
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Four years ago tomorrow, a white gunman entered a Bible study in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine people, all African American. The mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was deemed a hate crime, and the shooter was eventually sentenced to death. But not long after that tragedy, the world witnessed a remarkable scene. One by one, survivors and families of the victims stood up in front of the shooter and publicly forgave him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BETHANE MIDDLETON-BROWN: We have no room for hate so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.
ANTHONY THOMPSON: You know, I forgive you, and my family forgive you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent.
NADINE COLLIER: I will never, ever hold her again, but I forgive you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes covered that shooting for Charleston's Post and Courier. She got to know the survivors and the victims' families. And she writes about their journey in her new book "Grace Will Lead Us Home." I asked her to tell me about survivor Felicia Sanders, whose son and aunt died feet from her that day.
JENNIFER BERRY HAWES: When the shooting began, she grabbed her granddaughter and she dove beneath the table and played dead with her as the shooter killed, obviously, nine people around her. Most of them cowering beneath the tables. And Felicia was literally laying in the blood of her loved ones and was there when her son Tywanza died after really honestly writhing around, trying to reach his elderly aunt - just a terrifying, terrifying scene.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The world after this happened thought of this group as a symbol of forgiveness in the face of hate, but you wrote they weren't the homogenous group of forgiving people the world wanted them to be. How so?
BERRY HAWES: That's right. There was a bond hearing the day after the shooter was arrested. And at that bond hearing, five of the family members of those who died spoke. And they spoke in Christian themes of forgiveness and grace and mercy. And it was a very beautiful moment and very inspiring. But, in fact, many of the family members did not forgive the shooter right away. And some of them are still grappling with that even today now four years later. It wasn't an accurate portrayal of the families who really struggled with this. Many people really, really struggled with the idea of forgiving someone who'd done something so terrible. And others felt it whitewashed what had happened, and it gave cover to people who preferred not to address the dramatic racial disparities that still exist in South Carolina and racism in the city's history and all sorts of other things that needed to be confronted.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how did Felicia Sanders deal with the issue of forgiveness?
BERRY HAWES: Well, Felicia was one who spoke at the bond hearing and really did try to forgive right away. She was one who discussed feeling that she could not let hate for the shooter corrode her soul and cost her her own salvation. She has really tried to speak out about that and to encourage other families and people who have suffered from other violent tragedies in the country to do so as well so that they can try to find some peace or at least enough to move forward. We actually had a launch event for this book just a few days ago. And Felicia and her husband came. And it was interesting because they stood up and spoke. And Felicia discussed why she felt it was important to forgive and how it had helped her keep her sanity. But her husband spoke about how he did not forgive, and he didn't intend to. It was interesting to watch. So even within this couple who was dealing with so much, they themselves didn't agree.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jennifer, you don't use the shooter's name at first in this book, saying instead the young man, the killer, the visitor. How did you approach his portrayal? Because, obviously, it's difficult and loaded.
BERRY HAWES: It is, and I was adamant from the beginning that I did not want to write a book about Dylann Roof. I wanted to write a book about the people who were trying to deal with what he had done. I tried to look at him as a sub character who really mostly represented the racism that I felt was so important for understanding the context not only of this shooting but of Charleston and South Carolina, really much of the country if we're to be honest. I included his story because I wanted for people to think about where he learned his views and where we're moving from here. Are we going to address these issues for once and for all or not?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was it like being a white woman writing about this?
BERRY HAWES: Well, you know, you don't know what you don't know, right? And so as I was researching this, I realized how much I didn't know about Charleston's history. I've lived here for 20 years and thought it was fairly - well-versed in it. So on one level, I just learned a lot. On another level, I really tried hard to keep my journalistic hat on and tell this story from the eyes and ears and thoughts and emotions of the people I was writing about so that I was telling their stories. And that's what we try to do as journalists - and to let as little of me show up in this book as possible.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: By the time you came to the end of the book, how did you feel about forgiveness?
BERRY HAWES: I felt very happy that it provided some solace to the people who were hurting most. And for those people, forgiveness is a critical piece of their moving forward. But I really came to feel that as a country, we latched on to that narrative because it was easy. It allowed us to move on. It allowed us to put a bow onto this tragedy and then forget about it because these people had forgiven, then we could move on and feel OK. And that's where, I think, we've really missed an important moment. We need to find that energy again so that we can address the issues that are lingering. And we're just not addressing adequately, so I really had mixed feelings. I was happy for the people who were able to achieve that and move forward. Their grief is tremendous. And that grief is being shared by more and more communities across America as these mass shootings continue. But I really felt like it oversimplified the reality on the ground.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jennifer Berry Hawes, a writer for Charleston's Post and Courier. Her new book is called "Grace Will Lead Us Home."
Thank you very much.
BERRY HAWES: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND SONG, “I STILL BELONG TO JESUS”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.