Grace Will Lead Us Home, Jennifer Berry Hawes. New York: St. Martins Press, 2019.
Summary: An account of the massacre of nine people at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston by Dylann Roof, and the responses of survivors and surviving families, notably the forgiveness offered, and the impact on the families, the church, and the Charleston community.
Jennifer Berry Hawes is a Pulitzer Prize investigative journalist for the Post and Courier, based in Charleston, South Carolina. She not only was one of those who covered the fateful events of June 17, 2015, when Dylann Roof was welcomed into a Bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. church by Pastor Clementa Pinckney (also a state senator) and eleven others. He had planned the killing for six months, sat with the group for an hour as Myra Thompson led a study of the Parable of the Soils, and when they bowed to pray, he executed nine of them, firing a total of 77 rounds. His hope was to move from all the talk on white supremacist websites to ignite a race war.
Three survived from that circle. Polly Sanders was “allowed” to live by the killer to tell the story. Felicia Sanders covered her granddaughter, smearing herself with her son Tywanza’s blood, playing dead, while she watches him crawl toward “Aunt Susie” and as he takes his last breath, speaking his love for Felicia . Nearby, Clementa Pinckney’s wife Jennifer and her daughter Malana sheltered in an office, after hearing the first gunshot, followed by an “Ugh.” What they heard was husband and father Clementa dying.
Roof escaped. Hawes takes us through the aftermath, as officers swarm the scene, the most horrific most had ever seen. She traces the mounting fears of the families of those in the church as they awaited news, and then heard the worst. We see a city on edge, particularly in light of the recent police involved shooting by Officer Michael Slager of unarmed Walter Scott following a traffic stop. Then comes the tip to Roof’s location, and his apprehension–no shots fired despite his slaughter of nine.
Hawes recounts the electric moment at Roof’s bond hearing as he stands expressionless while first Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, and Anthony Thompson, a pastor and husband of Myra, forgive Roof and urge him to repent. Not all were ready to do that but many were, to the wonder of the police chief and others. This began a chain of events including a unity rally of blacks and whites in Charleston, the taking down of the Confederate flag at the initiative of Governor Nikki Haley on the capitol grounds, and the memorable address of President Barack Obama, delivering the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, speaking of the amazing grace shown by survivors and family, the undeserved grace granted a racist nation, concluding with Obama leading the assembled congregation in singing “Amazing Grace.”
Hawes describes not only the inspiring but the darker aspects of the aftermath of these killings: family conflicts, handling of donations intended for victim families, lapses of pastoral care, and lives like that of Cynthia Hurd’s husband Stephen that would never be the same, and the struggle of others to forgive. Roof’s trial and death sentence helped bring closure, although many, as Christians, opposed the death sentence, to give Roof every opportunity to repent and believe.
The granting of forgiveness, particularly to Roof, who refused it was controversial within victim families and more widely, and yet is a theme running through the book. The “amazing grace” many showed in the face of such evil brought wonder to many and seemed to have inspired at least some of the subsequent acts.
Yet I found myself wondering if this was yet one more incident of healing lightly the wounds of America’s original sin of racism. I do not question the decision of those who forgave. They acted out of deep conviction of lives shaped by a Christ who forgave his enemies as his blood was poured out on a cross. I don’t think any of us are worthy to question what these families did. What I do question is the response of a nation turning this into an inspiring, “feel good” moment, quickly banished from the mind and letting us off the hook from more substantive repentance and reformation.
Hawes helps us explore the darker underside of racism that we struggle as a nation to face, or whose existence we deny. She reminds us of Charleston’s history as the greatest port of entry for slaves, and the place where the Civil War began, and the continued embrace of the Confederate flag. She raises questions about how many young men are raised to hate, how a young man like Dylann Roof searching “black on white crime” was directed by search engines to white supremacist hate groups rather than FBI statistics.
One of the most moving stories was the response of police lieutenant Jennie Antonio, when she heard that Felicia Sanders was pleading to have her bullet pierced, blood stained Bible returned. Antonio sifted through biohazard materials in FBI facilities and found the Bible, sent it to a Texas company that salvaged such materials. Two months later, that Bible was delivered to Sanders, a barely visible tear where the bullet had penetrated, a faint pinkish tinge that tinted the pages, but still God’s words. When Roof was sentenced, she carried that Bible as she spoke:
My Bible, abused–abused, torn, shot up. When I look at the Bible, I see blood Jesus shed for me. And for you, Dylann Roof.”
I’m reminded of a Bible that was once my grandmother’s, probably looks much like Sanders Bible. She, like Felicia, loved the Bible, underlined many verses and wrote notes in the margins. She lived the Bible. I wonder how many in our churches are truly shaped by its message like the people in that Bible study, or like my grandmother. Instead of the disturbing messages that prey on fear, do they hear the Master’s “be not afraid.” Do they build walls or welcome the stranger and the alien? Instead of profiting from inequities, defining the world in terms of allies and enemies, and measuring one’s worth by what power one has, do they “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8)?
Hawes rendering of this story sensitively uncovers not only the sequence of events in Charleston but the deeper spiritual values of Mother Emanuel’s people, and the challenge of that spirituality for the rest of us. Will we listen to this deeper wisdom or continue to be drawn into the divisive rhetoric? Hawes’ narrative leaves me with that question.