When the Gunman Met the Prayer Warrior — Four Years Ago Today
The elder Christian woman saw nine of her closest friends gunned down inside their church. A new documentary recounts the Charleston massacre — and how a community counteracted violent hate.
Polly Sheppard has attended Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina for 38 years.
Known as “Miss Polly” to her friends — who seem to be just about everyone — she often attends the church’s Wednesday night Bible study.
When a socially awkward young white man joined the midweek service on June 17, 2015, she didn’t think much of it.
After all, Emanuel AME has a longstanding relationship with the College of Charleston just two blocks away.
“We were used to students coming in and out, so it wasn’t unusual,” says Sheppard, today age 73. “But when he came back for Bible study, he didn’t participate. He just sat there and listened.”
A hub of local community outreach, “Mother” Emanuel has spawned nearby Mt. Zion AME Church and other daughter churches.
“My best friend Myra [Thompson] was leading the study that day,” says Sheppard, referring to the pastor’s wife at Mt. Zion.
“We were studying Mark the fourth chapter, verses 13 through 20 — the sower of seeds.”
She recalls glancing across the room at 21-year-old Dylann Roof, having no idea he carried a concealed .45-caliber handgun.
“He wasn’t engaged in the study,” she says. “During the closing prayer, our eyes were shut. Then he started shooting.”
Within minutes, Roof shot and killed nine defenseless African-American believers bowed in prayer.
His violent attack at one of the nation’s oldest historically black churches instantly made headlines worldwide. Among the victims were senior pastor Clementa Pickney, also serving as a state senator at the time.
“I got up after that to take Reverend Pinckney’s pulse, and I took two more people’s pulse,” says Sheppard, a former nurse. Her check confirmed they were gone.
“I knew all of them, [so] it was very traumatic.”
Celebrities Buy Out Theaters in Support
This week marks four years since these unspeakably tragic events. Slated to play in theaters for two nights only, a new documentary entitled Emanuel recounts these shocking events.
It also reveals firsthand the remarkable response from several of the victims’ families. In courtroom moments broadcast live worldwide, they extended forgiveness to the convicted murderer.
With NBA star Stephen Curry and actress Viola Davis attached as executive producers, Emanuel has been garnering attention even in Hollywood.
Celebrities including Justin Bieber, Halle Berry, Martin Lawrence, Charlize Theron and others have announced they are buying out all the tickets for nine showings of the documentary across the country.
They are donating the tickets to local nonprofit groups and churches, who are mobilizing people to see the film and discuss its messages afterward.
The film honors the Emanuel Nine, as the victims have come to be known. Through intimate interviews with family members and survivors, viewers feel their pain — and sense a desire not to be defined by the worst day they’ve ever lived through.
Still they tell the stories and answer questions, believing that in such simple acts an inexplicable work of healing can begin.
Bringing Up the Elephant in the Room
Sheppard has given her firsthand account on major media outlets such as CNN, ABC, and NBC’s Today morning show.
Her hope today is that Christians will address what divides the church along ethnic lines. “We believe alike,” says Sheppard. “We have feelings alike. We are alike. Now we need to love each other.”
Film director Brian Ivie has interviewed dozens of surviving family members, pastors and civic leaders in Charleston.
He bluntly addresses what they say is needed to heal racial divides.
“Racism is our original sin,” says Ivie, an evangelical Christian.
“There’s really no healing unless we are willing to repent. The church has made a lot of mistakes and we often don’t own up to them.
“Until that air is cleared, I don’t think we can have other conversations about grace, love, redemption and all of that,” he adds.
The Gunman and The Prayer Warrior
“Miss Polly, get down — he’s shooting everyone!” yelled Felicia Sanders after the first shots were fired. She is one of five survivors along with Sheppard.
The elder woman ducked under a table and prayed, until the gunman came towards her.
“Did I shoot you yet?” mocked Roof as he approached Sheppard. “Shut up! I’m not going to shoot you. I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.” When the gunman tried to fire again, his weapon jammed.
He briefly left the room, and Sheppard hunted for a means to contact authorities. “I don’t usually travel with a cell phone — well, I do now but not then,” says Sheppard.
“Miss Nancy’s phone was right beside me, like it was prepared just for me. I picked it up and dialed 911.”
A pillar of the church, the former nurse was shaken as she surveyed the scene of violent carnage. Yet even on that sweltering, strangely quiet night, she saw glimmers of grace.
“It’s amazing I never saw Myra’s body on the floor,” said Sheppard. “I never got to her. Later, I said ‘Thank you, God,’ — because if I had seen Myra, I would have passed out. And if I’d have fallen on the floor, I would be in a pickle.”
Roof had exited through the same door where he had been welcomed in one hour before. He drove off and was apprehended the next day, 245 miles north in Shelby, N.C.
Only when caught a day later did he reveal to police investigators his intentions to “start a race war” by shooting up the church.
A Story Worth Hearing
The film surveys how racist ideology has proven persistent. Prior to the Civil War era, Emanuel AME Church was destroyed. Later rebuilt, it played a crucial role in mobilizing for civil rights.
“I learned a lot about how the church has withstood an incredible amount of persecution,” says Ivie, who spent three years on the film. “It’s so different from the persecution we think of today in the white evangelical church, which is: people are being mean to us on Twitter.”
“No, this is real persecution,” he adds. “Mother Emanuel was burned down and then rose again.”
Polly Sheppard also calls out where racism still exists in society. She referenced a rally of white nationalists two years following the Charleston shooting.
“When I saw all those young white supremacists in Charlottesville, I was amazed,” she says. “You would figure that racism was only in the older generation. That’s the first time I noticed how it is still around us and affecting young people.”
Driven by the real-life events it chronicles, Emanuel openly proclaims the Christian message of grace and forgiveness. It also fearlessly listens in to survivors and family members of the Charleston massacre. Voices like Sheppard offer insights into thorny, contentious present-day issues.
“I don’t think most people have got the message yet,” she says. “Something is going on in and around you that God wants you to be aware of.”