The nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., killed in a mass shooting this week, had gathered together Wednesday night for prayer and Bible study in the historically black church.
Joining them was a young white man, who sat quietly. An hour or so later, authorities allege, Dylann Roof stood up, made some racist comments, then began firing his .45 caliber handgun, stopping only to reload.
In the hours and days since that violent, tragic event – like so many similar events in recent US history – there have been deep grief and anger, prayer gatherings and hymn singing, profound questions for America and for God.
But there’s been something else – remarkable, perhaps – when fear, religious doubt, and the desire for revenge might have been expected: forgiveness, a foundational aspect of Christian doctrine and practice.
In media interviews and at a court hearing for the alleged killer Friday, relatives and close friends of the victims expressed forgiveness, some asking God’s blessing on Mr. Roof, who has been charged with nine counts of murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime.
“We already forgive him for what he’s done, and there’s nothing but love from our side of the family,” teenager Chris Singleton told BBC News. Chris’s mother Sharonda Singleton was one of those killed. She had been a speech pathologist and coach of the girls track team at Goose Creek High School. She was also on the ministerial staff at the church.
“I just feel a lot of love,” Chris’s younger sister Camryn said. “I’m a little bitter, but I’m overwhelmed with love.”
“I just wanted everybody to know, I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, the daughter of Ethel Lance, killed in the shooting. “You took something very precious away from me. 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. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
Speaking for Daniel Simmons, Wanda Simmons 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 in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”
Along with forgiveness, some who spoke had spiritual advice for Roof, who participated in the court hearing via live video from the county jail.
“I forgive you, my family forgives you,” said Anthony Thompson, the grandson of Myra Thompson. “But we would like you to take this opportunity to 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 will be OK. Do that and you will be better.”
This outpouring of forgiveness in the wake of what appears as hateful tragedy echoes what happened in a Pennsylvania Amish community nine years ago when a shooter entered a one-room school, killing five girls before taking his own life.
Within hours, the Amish community forgave the killer and his family, Donald Kraybill, professor of sociology and religious studies at Elizabethtown College, wrote a year later in the Monitor.
“Members of the community visited the gunman's widow at her home with food and flowers and hugged members of his family,” Dr. Kraybill wrote. “Of the 75 people at the killer's burial, about half were Amish, including parents who had buried their own children a day or so before. Amish people also contributed to a fund for the shooter's family.”
Like much about religious practice, working toward forgiveness can be a struggle.
“For me, I’m a work in progress and I acknowledge that I’m very angry,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown, who appeared in court Friday on behalf of her sister, the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor. “We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul. And I also thank God I won’t be around when your judgment day comes with him.”
During Friday’s hearing, Chief Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr., made a point of mentioning the alleged shooter’s family.
"We have victims, nine of them. But we also have victims on the other side,” the judge said. “There are victims on this young man's side of the family. Nobody would have ever thrown them into the whirlwind of events that they have been thrown into. We must find it in our heart, at some point in time, not only to help those that are victims but to also help his family as well."
“Charleston is a very strong community. We have big hearts. We're a very loving community,” he said. “We're going to reach out to everyone, all victims, and we will touch them.”