Standing in his variety store across the street from the local boxing club, Leon Fields – Uncle Leon to everyone around here – faces a dilemma: Should Dylann Roof die for his unthinkable crimes or should his life be spared as an act of grace?
Mr. Fields has witnessed all sorts of senseless violence on this rough-kempt corner of the Wagener Terrace neighborhood. Thoughts of vengeance, forgiveness, and God’s judgment aren’t theoretical here, says the African-American businessman, but visceral, real.
So on the one hand, for Fields, it’s just too much: Just as Mr. Roof wrote in a jailhouse journal that he has not shed a tear for his victims, Fields doesn’t want to return the favor.
“At the same time,” Fields says, “I remember when my sister was murdered. I wished ill on a lot of people, but then found myself feeling sorry for them when life got the better of them.”
His range of thoughts are part of what Fields summarizes as the deeply “mixed emotions” in Charleston’s black community, which was attacked in its most sacred space on June 17, 2015, when Roof stood up at a Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and fired 77 rounds in 90 seconds, killing nine beloved worshippers, ranging from 26 to 89 years old.
This week, as the now-convicted Roof hears tributes to those he killed during the sentencing phase of his trial, this “holy city” studded with heaven-reaching spires is vexed by what to do with him. A majority of white Charlestonians say he should be executed. Yet many in the city’s black community – including many of the victims’ families – are taking a different view, challenging the idea that forgiveness excuses white supremacist behavior and downplays black humanity.
The Charleston parishioners “are in a touchy situation where they’ve been involved in a long history of white violence against the black community, and they’re operating out of that concern,” says Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “The direction that the families of the victims have taken in this is clearly trying to provide witness to a larger situation. They’re trying to move the history in a different direction.”
The Charleston countercurrent
Last week, federal prosecutors won conviction on nine counts of hate and 25 other federal charges. They have asked the jury for the death penalty.
But those demands are facing a countercurrent, which began days after Roof was captured. In a courtroom statement, Nadine Collier, the daughter of victim Ethel Lance, told Roof: “I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul.… You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
That sentiment remains. To Sam Holmes, a Charleston-born Vietnam veteran, Roof's hatred is a reminder that the distant past – when white Charlestonians feared that slaves would rise up and overthrow them – still lingers.
“Listen, humanity is in bad shape, and it’s not just an American problem but a world problem,” says Mr. Holmes. “Forgiveness in this way is a way of making things better. To have him live and allow him the time to change is mind” allows both retribution and redemption.
Cutting the hair of his friend James Greene in his store stuffed with everything from canned salmon to Nike sneakers, Uncle Leon hands over a business card that cites Psalm 121: “The Lord will watch over your coming and going / both now and forevermore.”
His 200-square-foot general store seems a world away from Charleston’s touristy enclaves, where carriage tour guides note that the only socioeconomic divide is “between the haves and the have-a-heck-of-a-lots.”
But it was in this neighborhood that some of Roof’s victims found community outside the church. Before her murder, Ethel Lance, for one, was a frequent customer at Fields’s shop – a dynamo church lady, he says, always running from one errand to the next, often on behalf of Mother Emanuel.
The role of the church
Indeed, the currents of forgiveness that run through Charleston in many ways flow from the church.
On Wednesday, the 201-year-old national AME church, born at Mother Emanuel, urged the jury to spare Roof’s life, because part of eradicating racial injustice “means being open for a cure from unbearable pain, and [a] willingness to bind our wounds to forgive offenders …,” as Bishop Frank Reid III said in a statement.
The stance marks generations of the African-American church meeting oppression with compassion – a view that the fight against injustice is a long game where whites, as a whole, are not the enemy, and where progress comes not through violence but through grace and the rule of law.
“It’s important to understand in this measured response that they recognize that change has taken place, that Roof is an outlier, that he doesn’t represent a random sample of white people,” says Shayne Lee, a University of Houston sociologist and co-author of “Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.”
Forgiveness in this case “seems absurd, but it’s beautiful.”
It is a forgiveness that, in many cases, seems not fully returned, some say.
“People of African descent have acted out of a sense of forgiveness for a very long time, so this [stance] is not new but consistent with history,” says the Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith, who works with church engagement at Bread for the World in Washington. “However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anger, doesn’t mean there isn’t deep pain, and a deep sense of disappointment.”
Others point to the fact that, more recently, a local jury failed to find former police officer Michael Slager guilty, though a video recording showed him fatally shooting a fleeing black motorist in the back.
“Part of our history is this pattern of a lot of pressure always being placed on the black community to forgive, to move on, to make peace, when nothing has actually been resolved,” civil rights activist Bree Newsome, who scaled flagpole to remove the Confederate flag after the Charleston killings, told the Associated Press last week.
To be sure, the push to forgive Roof – who has remained unrepentant and voiced irritation Thursday at having to listen to so much testimony on behalf of his victims – is complex and far from unanimous.
Forgiveness vs. mercy
During a break in the court proceedings, Esther Lance, Ethel Lance’s daughter, noted that she hasn't spoken to her sister, Nadine Collier, for nearly a year, even though they’ve both been in the same courtroom. The divide is over Ms. Collier’s willingness to forgive their mother’s killer.
“If [Roof] lives, his momma and daddy get to come see him,” says Esther Lance. “I can’t ever see my momma again. The last time I saw her she said, ‘I’ll come back tonight to kiss the grands.’ But she never came back, and we’ll never see her again.”
That struggle reaches into the church, as well. For some, forgiveness does not equal full mercy.
“It’s fair to say that what makes this even more difficult is that it occurred in a place we consider sacred and holy, and among people who actually were doing what the church is intended to do, who welcomed a stranger who in turn took advantage of their kindness in the worst possible way,” says the Rev. Mark Tyler, the senior pastor of Mother Bethel AME church in Philadelphia. In that way, “every person who does something has to understand that even if God forgives you, there is still a certain set of consequences that you unleash because of the thing that you’ve done.”
Despite his sense that Roof needs to pay the ultimate price for his crime, Fields worries that killing the young white supremacist could make him a martyr. He shudders at the thought, mulling the question of whether compassion can, in fact, lead to grace and, perhaps, meaningful change.
At the very least, he says, the families of the Emanuel Nine “lit a lamp for us to follow.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Wagener Terrace.