Survivors of Charleston Church Shooting Forgive — And Cannot Forget
To honor their loved ones lost to a white supremacist gunman, surviving family members featured in new film Emanuel share stories and urge action against racism in all its forms.
More than 400 people gathered Tuesday at Museum of the Bible for the Washington, D.C. premiere of upcoming documentary film Emanuel.
Survivors and victims’ family members of the 2015 Charleston church shooting recounted their losses, the astonishing forgiveness offered to the murderer, and truths they have taken away from the tragedy.
“Every day, I think about my mom,” said Nadine Collier, whose 70-year-old mother Ethel Lance was one of nine churchgoers killed by the gunman. “As time goes on, it gets easier. But this is something I will never forget. It’s with me for the rest of my life.”
The film takes its name from Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest black churches in the South. On June 17, 2015, a dozen believers met there for a mid-week Bible study. A 21-year old white man, Dylann Roof, was invited in when he came to the door.
Within an hour — after sitting through Bible study — he shot and killed nine parishioners. Now the film Emanuel chronicles these tragic true events with on-the-scene footage and firsthand interviews, including with the Charleston mayor and police chief.
Directed by Brian Ivie (The Drop Box), the feature-length documentary has NBA star Stephen Curry and Academy Award winner Viola Davis attached as executive producers.
Emanuel will open in theaters nationwide on June 17, four years to the day of the shooting — which surviving family members see as significant.
“There are things that have come out of that date that would bring you to your knees,” said Rev. Sharon Risher, sister to Collier. “But the joy that has come and how God has touched each one of us individually, we know that date is not only one of doom.
“It has brought an understanding of how God brings triumph from tragedy.”
“God Left Me Here for A Reason”
On that fateful Wednesday night, twelve black Christians gathered to pray and study the Bible. Polly Sheppard, today 73, was one of only three survivors.
The white gunman later noted to FBI interrogators that he intended to “start a race war.”
He said to the elder black Christian woman: “I’m going to leave you alive to tell the story.”
“I know God left me here for a reason,” said Sheppard in an interview.
“You go through trials and tribulations in life, and they can actually bless you. Through them you find out who God really is.”
In a panel at the D.C. premiere event, she addressed ongoing issues of racism in the U.S.
Sheppard said white Christian friends are often disinterested in messages from the shooting aftermath beyond forgiveness.
“You have to sit down and talk to each other, not at each other.”
“They would have to be willing to listen to what I have to say,” she stated. “When you begin to talk to each other and feel each other out, then you can say those things. Other than that, they’re not going to pay you any attention.”
“You have to sit down and talk to each other, not at each other, and mean what you say when you say it.”
Among the Emanuel Nine was 59-year-old Myra Thompson, wife of Rev. Anthony Thompson.
He recalled joining others in lamenting the recent Notre Dame Cathedral fire in France, which dominated headlines. Yet, he said, even Christian media largely fell silent when an arsonist burned three black churches in Louisiana.
“If the church is contaminated, then the world is going to be contaminated,” said Thompson. “It’s a big problem in the church, and with people who call themselves ministers of the Lord. Because they say one thing and act a different way.”
Traffic Stop vs. Sting Operation
Providing insights as black Americans, other surviving family members also spoke. Pro baseball player Chris Singleton lost his 45-year-old mother Sharonda Coleman-Singleton at the hands of the racist gunman.
He recounted his conversations with teammates about issues of racism.
“In South Carolina, I was the only black guy on the baseball team,” said Singleton.
“I was talking about being scared of getting pulled over. Now I am not a saint, but I don’t do anything crazy. There should be no need to be alarmed.”
He related to his friends how he avoids any wrong moves.
“I’ve got to figure out, first of all, if I can reach my wallet or if just keep my hands on the dash,” he said.
“They were like, ‘Chris, why can’t you reach for your wallet?’ I said, ‘Bro, I can’t reach for my wallet cos what if they think my wallet is something else?’”
Singleton haggled at length with teammates, who doubted black men face a double standard.
His teammates doubted black men face a double standard.
“They’re not scared at all,” he said. “Even though I follow every rule, that fear is still in me.”
By contrast, Nadine Collier observed how cops treated Dylann Roof.
A multi-state manhunt located him one day after the shooting, 245 miles north in Shelby, N.C.
“What stands out to me the most is when they caught him in North Carolina,” said Collier.
“They didn’t rough him up. It’s like they gave him [Burger King] and patted him on his back. That kind of hit a nerve.”
In the film, footage from the interrogation shows the assailant eating fast food provided by the agents.
“I know I was the first one who first said I forgave him — of course I did!” said Collier.
“But I’m a human and I also can be angry. I got feelings.”
From Tragedy to Truth-Telling
A defining moment for the nation, the Charleston tragedy has served as a call-to-action for diverse Christian believers affected by it.
To reinvest in his hometown, Singleton recently left his stint playing with the Chicago Cubs. He now serves as director of community outreach for the Charleston RiverDogs, a local minor league team.
People often ask the Major Leaguer why he spends so much time speaking to and mentoring youth.
“When I see Dylann Roof, I think he was misled and mistaught with some wrong information,” said Singleton. “I see his little haircut, and I think he’s just a lost kid. That’s why I go to schools [and] speak truth.” Roof is currently serving nine consecutive life sentences in a federal penitentiary.
Shooting survivor Polly Sheppard echoed his message. She urged attendees to confront racism in their circles of influence, whether in one’s own family or the public square.
“You have to speak truth to power,” said Sheppard. “We cover up a lot of stuff. Don’t let it roll over. When you know it’s wrong, you call a spade a spade.”
She and the many victims’ family members hope the film Emanuel, playing in over 1,000 theaters on June 17 and 19, sparks anti-racist action grounded in relationships that bridge partisan and racial divides.
“If you’re a Christian, you have to decide if you’re truly obedient to the Lord,” said Rev. Thompson. “Then we can start talking about these things and making change.
“But as long as you’re being a follower instead of a leader, it’s not gonna happen.”