People pray in front of the Emanuel AME Church on the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting on July 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina.

People pray in front of the Emanuel AME Church on the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting on July 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina.

Four years ago, a man walked into Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat and prayed with parishioners during Bible study.

And then, he opened fire. He took time to reload. And when he was through, nine people were dead.

He killed the church’s reverend, Clementa Pickney. He killed 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders and Rev. Daniel Simmons. He killed Nyra Thompson, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. He killed Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Ethel Lee Lance and Susie Jackson.

The victims were black. The man who killed them was white.

After the tragedy, it emerged that the family members of the victims would forgive the shooter. For The New York Times, Parul Sehgal writes that “a monstrous act of terrorism became a transfixing narrative of grace and forgiveness.”

Sehgal noted that narrative in her review of “Grace Will Lead Us Home,” by Jennifer Berry Hawes. Hawes is a Pulitzer-winning reporter based in Charleston.

More from that piece:

“They weren’t the homogeneous group of forgiving people the world wanted them to be,” [Jennifer Berry Hawes] writes. During sentencing, “some screamed at Roof, calling him evil. Several hoped he burned in hell for eternity. They called him a coward. Satan. An animal. A monster.”

The narrative of forgiveness was alluring, in part, because it seemed to so quickly suture the wound; if the families had forgiven Roof, what need for self-examination or substantive change? White residents of Charleston held that tensions had actually lessened in their city; they were twice as likely as their black counterparts to say that race relations had improved as a direct result of the mass murder.

Rev. Sharon Risher’s mother was Ethel Lee Lance. Her cousins were Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders. And Myra Thompson was her friend. Risher wrote a book, For Such a Time as This, about her experience after the trial, and about her process regarding forgiveness.

Here’s part of an excerpt, published on

On day three, we watched a video of the killer talking to FBI agents the day after the shootings. He actually laughed when he admitted he’d shot those people. When they shared Momma’s autopsy report, and how many times she was hit by the bullets, my own body seemed to feel what Momma had felt. The things I heard and saw during the trial have left an imprint on my brain and on my soul that will forever remain. I sat there day after day, just feet away from the killer, trying to understand why.

He actually had visited the church three times before the shooting, scouting it out. When he arrived at Bible study that night, they welcomed him in. I can just picture Momma welcoming him, so proud of her church, telling him to come in and hear the word of God. He sat with them for almost an hour. Then, when they stood and bowed their heads to pray, he pulled out a semi-automatic weapon and started shooting.

We talk about the narrative of forgiveness. Who is asked for it? What does it mean?

Produced by Jonquilyn Hill.


  • Jennifer Berry Hawes Reporter, Post and Courier; author, "Grace Will Lead Us Home: the Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness"; @jenberryhawes
  • William H. Lamar IV Pastor, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church; @WilliamHLamarIV

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