The words rang out clearly, despite being slightly muffled by suppressed sobs, for all the world to hear. “I forgive you.” Those three words were repeated again and again by family members of the nine victims killed on June 17, 2015 at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Those words carried the message that hate would not win, nor have the last word in this tragedy.
At Dylann Roof’s bond hearing on Friday, June 19, less than 48 hours after the massacre within the holy walls of Mother Emanuel, the church stepped forward with a response of Christian love and forgiveness that shocked the nation. Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance, set the tone by being the first to publically come forward and tell Dylann Roof, “I forgive you.” She continued, “You took something very precious from me, and I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
“I forgive you and my family forgives you,” echoed Anthony Thompson, husband of victim Myra Thompson. “But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the One who matters the most: Christ. So that He can change it, can change your ways no matter what happens to you, and you’ll be okay. Do that, and you’ll be better off than what you are right now.”
Bethane Middleton Brown, the sister of the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, acknowledged her anger and that she was still “a work in progress.” However, she continued, “She taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.”
Alana Simmons, granddaughter of slain Daniel Simmons, Sr., said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof … everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived and loved, and their legacies will live and love. So hate won’t win.”
As the state of South Carolina and the rest of the nation reeled from the sickening violence against such beautiful people worshipping within the house of the Lord, the message of forgiveness and love’s victory was astounding. Mother Emanuel’s response caused individuals around the nation to look at themselves introspectively and ask what their own response would have been in that situation. It also caused many people to reconsider the resentment in their hearts toward people in their own lives for sins minor in comparison to the murder of loved family members.
Charleston native the Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark was asked by the Rt. Rev. Richard Franklin Norris, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, to leave Mount Pisgah AME church in Sumter and take over leadership of Mother Emanuel this past January. She was friends with five of the nine victims and had been comparing notes with beloved pastor, the Rev. Honorable Clementa C. Pinckney, less than two weeks before the shooting. “My first reaction was to rush down to Charleston, but my own congregation needed me to minister to them. It could have been us — we were in Bible study that Wednesday evening as well. After hearing the news, my body stayed in Sumter, but my heart was in Charleston.”
Her first sermon to her new congregation this year focused on the message of hope found in Jeremiah 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” She encouraged the church to remember that in the face of tragedy and uncertain times, they still had a God they could trust who did not want them to rely on the tangible, but to rely on Him.
“After prayer on what my first message should be to this congregation, I knew it should be a message of hope and that the best is yet to come — that this tragedy is just the comma, not the period, in their lives. I also preached a sermon on Psalm 23 called ‘Victory in the Valley’ and went over verse 4 which states, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.’ For Christians, there is no need to fear death, because it is a transformational time where we are changed over from mortality to immortality with Christ,” she says. “I feel they are growing from that message, and even in this dark, dark situation, there is still victory in Christ Jesus, even over death itself. People may think about the possibility of being killed in something like a car accident, but very few people think about dying in church. But for a Christian, what better place?”
Dr. Clark asserts that what the enemy intended for harm, God has already begun turning it around for good, citing Genesis 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good,” as well as Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.”
“Dylann Roof’s desire for a race war has brought so many people to this church and even to terms with themselves that there is a better way to live with each other,” she explains. “While we are not there yet, I see reflections of it growing in the culture around us. This is a spiritual victory for our church because it has brought people together.”
It all comes back to forgiveness and how it is possible in such a horrific situation. According to Dr. Clark, while it is not easy, forgiveness is a very simple choice. “If you grew up in the church and believe what you have been taught and believe The Model Prayer, how could you not forgive? If you truly believe what you have been saying — ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ — and what you have been sharing with others, then there is no other option. Forgiveness really is for you … it makes life palatable for you again and gives you the assurance that you are striving for perfection,” she says. “You are trying to be who you believe God would have you be, while knowing that forgiveness does not exonerate someone from a crime. The actual sin will be accountable to the person, and they will have to come to terms with the aftereffects of what they have done.”
Often people think of forgiveness as being the antidote to anger; however, rather than being a hindrance to forgiveness, anger is actually a necessary part of it. It would be an indication of an evil person indeed if they did not get angry at such violence. Anger is not inherently wrong; the danger lies in staying there.
“Can you be angry and still forgive?” asks Dr. Clark. “Don’t the Scriptures teach us, be angry and sin not? We do not abandon anger at the sin while still forgiving the person. Let me put it this way — anger is ‘the steps on the front porch.’ Dealing with it is the ‘entryway’ to the reality of the world in which you live. To live in your world, you have to truly disengage with the anger and embrace the love that flows from within so that you can be angry and not sin in the process. Anger is something you must move through, because if you stay there, it will turn to bitterness and hatred.”
She says that the first step is to choose to forgive, even though it is something that a person may never feel like doing. “Feelings and reality are not always the same,” she says. Nor is it a one-time achievement that can then be checked off and dismissed as done; rather, it is a continual process. “Every day is a challenge to either embrace forgiveness or rage in the war within. It is a choice that you make, even in small things … when someone cuts in front of you on the interstate. Yesterday took care of yesterday, but today you must make choices for today.”
Dr. Clark explains that in every person’s life, there are people one must choose to forgive. “You make the choice again, and again, and again — every time you see them. Hopefully over time, it is not as hard and becomes less and less of a challenge until it becomes a way of life. That is part of the transformation of the power of the Gospel — it changes us. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds. We hear it and hear it and hear it, and we do it and do it and do it, and then it becomes a part of who we are,” she says.
Dr. Clark also says that regarding the offender in any case of forgiveness, the victim of that person’s hurtful action must first make the choice to forgive and then in their mind turn the person over to God’s hands. “Jesus said of his killers, ‘Father forgive them.’ He turned them over to the Father to let Him deal with them, hoping for their eternal forgiveness and salvation, so why shouldn’t I? Parents discipline their children so that their bad actions won’t shape who they will ultimately be, and so it is for every person before God. There is no better place for Dylann Roof to be than in the hands of God. It is an act of love to put a sinner in God’s hands.”
That is truly the ultimate level of forgiveness, and one which Anthony Thompson displayed at the bond hearing — hoping for his wife’s murderer to work through his sin with God. It tests one’s inner forgiveness in truly not wishing wrongdoers any ill and instead wishing blessings for them. This kind of forgiveness also raises the question of whether someone who has committed such a heinous act should even be considered by God to receive this absolute level of forgiveness, but this teaching is the Christian principle that separates Christianity from all other belief systems — that Jesus came to the world to save the very worst of sinners, taking the judgment they deserve upon Himself and dying a criminal death.
Romans 5:6-9 states: “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
It is this principle that Mother Emanuel has steadfastly held to and displayed to the nation. “Forgiveness is the core part of our belief system, so it spills from Mother Emanuel to other parts of the community,” says Dr. Clark. “Like the Scriptures teach us, ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ Well, that is because you learn to forgive one another. Love is forgiveness. Now the nation knows Mother Emanuel because of this love, and it is a reflection of Christ and one that tells the story of the forgiveness we have all given and received. It is a story that offers a means of the grace that is so amazing.”
However, showcasing this choice of extreme love and forgiveness doesn’t mean that people are not still hurting. Dr. Clark shares that for some people, the shooting may well have happened yesterday. Her leadership will be instrumental in moving the church as a body and as individuals through the process of grief and healing. Because of the high level of focus from the media they have attracted, she explains that they have not had much of an opportunity to grieve together privately.
As the church puts itself back together and rebuilds its sense of peace, Dr. Clark’s primary prayer for her church is, “Lord, make us one.” She says she is taking her ministry one day at a time.
Ultimately, a tragedy like this makes one go back to the foundation of their beliefs. “I am in a place I have never been in before,” she says. “Clearly I had to re-evaluate … do I really believe what I say I believe? Can I honestly in all good conscience offer a message of continuous forgiveness? Thus, my faith is strengthened, not weakened, by this tragedy.”
In her office, front and center on her desk, is a plaque reading, “God I am in your hands. I know you won’t drop me.” She explains that she positioned it facing out so that it is one of the first things she sees coming into the office. It is her “visual cheerleader” and daily encouragement.
“I cry when my members cry … and hurt when they feel hurt. But I can also laugh when they laugh,” she says. “Often, I am reminded to keep my feet on the ground, my knees to the floor and my eyes to the hills.”