Just about two months ago, the unthinkable happened in my city. A young man entered a church, sat in a Bible study and unleashed bullet after bullet, killing nine church members. There were also survivors, including a child, who witnessed the terror unfold. What happened a few days later might even be more incomprehensible: the families of those victims forgave that killer. If you want to go to church, watch the bond hearing here.
In the moments, days, week and now months that have followed, I have tried to be open to all the experience is teaching me. Here are a few things I’ve learned:
- Evil and hate exist. You may be thinking, “Of course it still exists.” But when evil comes to your doorstep, its face looks even more sinister. Until June 17, I watched from afar other mass shootings. This atrocity reminded me that we live in a world full of evil, but what came after the shooting, the way my beautiful city responded did not let that evil win out. More on that later.
- Symbols aren’t everything, but they are something. The Confederate flag conversation began almost immediately after the shootings. I heard people remark that it was “tacky” and “disrespectful” to talk about the flag before the victims were even buried. My thoughts on this were very different. One of the victims, Reverend Senator Clementa Pinckney fought to have this flag removed before his death (and mandatory body cameras on police officers as a result of the Walter Scott tragedy which occurred about 2 months prior to the shooting; you can read more about that here). The thought of Sen. Pinckney’s viewing at the state house occurring while the flag was still up was sickeningly ironic. (officials did cover a window in the state house so it couldn’t be seen). The Confederate flag has become a symbol of hate. You can argue what its roots were, that its meaning has been co-opted by racists, that “the flag didn’t climb down off the flagpole and kill those people”, etc. The bottom line for me as a person of faith is if my brother and sister are offended by this flag, if they have a visceral response to it when they see it, if they remember their forefathers and foremothers being wrapped in it after being killed by the KKK, then it needs to come down. This is not only civil, or polite, but CHRISTLIKE. People before symbols.
- Policies aren’t everything, but they are something. Gun control. Mental health services. Something needs to happen. We can no longer pretend that our love affair with guns is a healthy one.
- Reconciliation and peacemaking is holy work. We are all called to this. What does this mean exactly? For my friends Bill Stanfield and Evelyn Oliveira, it means living among the people they are serving at Metanoia. But what about for me? For you? Will this tragedy be a passing atrocity that I allowed to change me for a short amount of time, or will it transform my worldview, and thus my actions? Tragedy, especially at your front door, fosters self-reflection, but my prayer for myself, my family and our community as a whole is that it will truly change the very fiber of who we are.
- Forgiveness is a choice. When the families offered the gift of forgiveness just days after the massacre, I was talking to an African American colleague who grew up in the Civil Rights era. I asked her, “How can these families give forgiveness so quickly?” She said, “You say it with your mouth. You lean into it. You say it so that the action will follow so that not one seed of hate has room to grow.” It was then that I realized that even the act of forgiveness is different for my African American brothers and sisters. My white privilege allows me to fester, to be angry, to harbor resentment and grudge. For my colleague, for the families, their history of oppression has not afforded them that luxury.
- Not talking to your children about race sends a message. Although my children are very young and cannot grasp what happened that fateful Wednesday night, fear overcame me. The thought that we are raising children in a world where churches and schools are no longer safe terrifies me. So what would I tell them if they were older? I hope that we could have open conversations about our own biases (we all have them) and that to voice and recognize them is the beginning of change. I hope that we will teach them that there are privileges that automatically come with having white skin and their job is to be aware of this and to listen to their friends of color to really hear others’ experiences. Whereas I will converse with my two boys about white privilege, their African American friends’ mothers will talk about the danger of wearing hoodies and the assumptions that police officers may make because of the color of their skin. Even if these conversations are awkward, they need to happen. Silence sends another message: it isn’t important, we are too uncomfortable to talk about these things, and worst of all, we don’t care.
- Love wins….every single time. I cannot say enough about how my beloved hometown reacted to the tragedy that occurred. Dylann Roof allegedly said he killed those kind souls to “start a race riot.” That, most certainly, did not happen. The Sunday after the shootings, an expected crowd of 5,000 walked our city’s most visible icon, the Ravenel Bridge. Estimates are that upwards of 10-15,000 showed up, including some of the children of the victims. Love wins. As the victims were being buried, there were rumors swirling that Westboro “Baptist” Church would be coming to picket: another attempt to smear our city with hate. Instead, a grassroots Facebook movement emerged of volunteers to be “human shields” so that families could grieve peacefully. One of those volunteers held up a “Love Wins” sign as Jennifer Pickney, Clementa Pickney’s widow, exited the church. Mrs. Pinckney hugged the volunteer and whispered into her ear “every single time.”
Dylann Roof told someone that he almost didn’t go through with the killings because the Bible study participants were “so nice” to him. What he experienced, before killing them, was the love of Christ. That love continued at his bond hearing when the victims’ families pled for his soul and offered words of forgiveness. This is the lavish grace of Christ, fleshed out in a courtroom. My prayer is that their hard decision of forgiving the person who killed their loved ones is not in vain; that their example will continue to inspire my city known for its beauty, and now for its soul. Love wins…..every single time.
LeAnn Gardner is a right brained social worker and minister married to a left brained engineer. Together they (sometimes) compose a full brain. She is mother to two boys, ages 3 1/2 and 1 year.