Families to Charleston Killer: ‘We Forgive You’

Catholics reflect on the powerful witness of their Christian brothers and sisters in Charleston, S.C.

A mourner looks upwards during the June 25 funeral service of Ethel Lance, 70, one of the nine victims of a mass murder at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
A mourner looks upwards during the June 25 funeral service of Ethel Lance, 70, one of the nine victims of a mass murder at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. (photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — One by one, the families of Dylann Roof’s victims came forward. One by one, in an indelible example of Christian charity in a South Carolina courtroom, they forgave the young man who took the lives of their relatives in a deadly killing spree.

On June 17, Roof allegedly killed nine people at a Bible study in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mere days later, the families and friends of the victims gathered for Roof’s court appearance, where they spoke their piece.

“I just want everyone to know I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance. “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. [God] have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgive you, and I forgive you.”

They addressed Roof as he stood, showing no emotion as he listened.

“You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know,” Felicia Sanders said, including her 26-year-old son, Tywanza Sanders. “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. Every fiber in my body hurts. I will never be the same. … But as they say in the Bible study, we enjoyed you — but may God have mercy on your soul.”

“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof that they lived in love,” said Alanna Simmons, granddaughter of retired pastor Daniel Simmons.

“Hate won’t win,” Simmons affirmed.

“We are the family that love built,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown. Her 49-year-old sister, Rev. Depayne Middleton, was killed. “We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.”

Anthony Thompson, the grandson of 59-year-old Myra Thompson, said, “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 your ways, no matter what happens to you, and you’ll be okay.”

These powerful, public acts of forgiveness from the grieving families stirred reactions everywhere.

Catholics in the Charleston area immediately responded to this moving witness.


‘True Witnesses of God’s Love’

“I was so moved and that [community’s response] was so powerful that I preached about it on Sunday,” said Father Jeffrey Kirby, vicar of vocations for the Charleston Diocese, who lives three blocks from Emanuel AME Church. He wanted to show his congregation “what true faith can do,” which related well to the Gospel about the storm on the Sea of Galilee, which the Lord calmed.

“It was the faith of this community that allowed Jesus to calm the waves and give mercy,” said Father Kirby of the tragedy.

As he spoke to his parishioners, he “could tell that people were moved by the witness of the AME community. And there was an amazing response by people after the homily.”

“The forgiveness of these family members is a preparation for us for the Year of Mercy,” he added.

An additional insight into the situation also became part of Father Kirby’s homily. “We didn’t see Ferguson and Baltimore. We saw Charleston,” he told the people, referencing the violence that occurred in Ferguson, Mo., and in Baltimore following the killings of two African-American residents by local police. “That community [here] took the lead for prayer — and mercy and healing: A Christian community showed us how to deal with tragedy and the difference faith can make.”

Sister Margaret Kerry of the Daughters of St. Paul pointed out that many homilies in Charleston’s Catholic churches last Sunday focused on forgiveness.

With their bookstore only a few blocks from Emanuel AME Church, the sisters responded personally by displaying books and audio CDs on forgiveness in their windows.

“The witness is very powerful,” Sister Margaret said. “Those people could not forgive like that if they haven’t lived it [forgiveness].”

The situation brought the community together in “a way of defeating evil,” she added.

She described how many people gathered by Emanuel AME Church to pray the Rosary, led by Bishop Robert Guglielmone and others, after the shooting. People of other denominations also joined with Catholics in prayer, she said.

Sister Margaret drew the lesson that, “with forgiveness, we remember all lives matter.”

Even if we are feeling anger, we can forgive, she stressed, pointing out that forgiveness is an act of the will.

Barbara Denton, who lives in a nearby Charleston suburb and attends a Catholic church there, said she was “not surprised at the AME community’s response. The African-American population in Charleston is [made up of] the most giving and loving people you’re going to meet in the church.”

Denton, who was heartbroken when she learned of the tragedy, supports the families and the message they delivered.

“I truly, truly admire what they did,” she said. “They were true witnesses of God’s love. That had to be the hardest thing that they had to do. But they had to be true witnesses for the Lord. He was calling them to do that.”

Denton observed that even those who found the murderous events hard to fathom “have an incredible admiration for these people who did what they did” to forgive.

She also emphasized, “We did not have a riot here. We had the total opposite effect in this city.”

At a Mass in Charleston that she and her husband attended, one of the songs was the Prayer of St. Francis. Later, a friend who is Methodist told her about a service at her church, in which they sang the same hymn.

“That was a message of peace and love,” Denton said, noting that all area churches were reflecting on the same message: “God sent his Son, who on the cross said, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ He gave us that mandate.”

One of the best ways to remember that and memorialize the victims and their relatives is to follow the example of the families, Denton said. “People who think they can never find forgiveness in their hearts saw people do it and now know people can do it.”

“You have to pray that God will give you a forgiving heart,” she advised. “Prayer is the only way you can find forgiveness.”


‘Demonstration of Love’

Arthur McFarland is the former supreme knight of the Knights of Peter Claver — the largest and oldest continually existent predominantly African-American Catholic fraternal organization, which was founded more than 100 years ago. A  member of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Charleston, he said that many people in town are talking about the “forgiveness that came less than 48 hours after their loved ones died.”

It takes “conversation to work through all this — conversation and prayer,” he added.

The events really hit home for McFarland because, before he converted to Catholicism, he once worshipped at Emanuel AME. He also has relationships with folks there, including his mother, father, siblings and aunts.

As a result, the event “has a particular meaning for me trying to wrap my arms around it, understanding the history of Emanuel,” McFarland said.

He called the events and the aftermath “an epiphany experience” because there is the realization that racism is real. For answers, he looks to faith.

“I see what we preach in the Catholic faith: Racism is a sin, and I see some public confession that racism is a sin,” he said. This now leads people to examine: “Have I as an individual been a part of this racism? If I have been guilty of that sin, it’s time for me to confess and repent. The outpouring now is that folks are trying to separate themselves from Roof because of the sin he represents.”

“When we say the Lord’s Prayer, isn’t that what we say — ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’? Those [families] did not have to go through an analysis. That was [a] demonstration of their faith. We see in this outpouring — this demonstration — of love, and we can’t get around appreciating it because of the horror done to these families. People have to be moved by this demonstration of love.”

McFarland added, “What happened at Emanuel is not the first time you have a black family forgiving the killer.” He pointed out Judy Scott, the mother of Walter Scott, a black man shot by a police officer this spring in North Charleston.

“That witnessing worldwide,” McFarland said, referring to both cases, “is what is generating this movement now. People are separating themselves from the sin of racism.”

Because of all the good coming out of the Emanuel AME tragedy, McFarland said, “God’s hand had to be in this.” The killer’s attack on the church was “in order to create more hatred — rather than the actual outcome, which is the outpouring of more love. Only God could move us that quickly.”

In the aftermath, McFarland said all Christians and people of faith and goodwill should be asking: How do we change? And having such a conversation “requires us to be Christlike” — of which the Emanuel AME families provide a remarkable example to an entire nation.

Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.