In Charleston, South Carolina, nine black people were killed while attending Bible study. On Wednesday June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a white man, asked to join the Bible study group. He was welcomed with open arms. There was no black or white issue; this was a place of worship—this was God's house. For the next hour Roof was an active participant within the group. And then, the unthinkable. He stood, pulled out a .45-caliber handgun, and said he was there "to shoot black people." Thus began one of the worst American hate crimes of our generation. In the end, eight people died at the church, and one died in a hospital.
The deaths of these people in such a brutal and vicious fashion, and Roof’s stated wish of starting a race war, seemed not only a possibility but a probability, up until his arraignment. Only 60 hours after the shooting, one by one, family members addressed Roof saying how much they missed their loved ones, and then, miraculously, said they forgave him. For those who chose to speak directly to Roof, here is what the family members of the deceased said. We could not see their faces, but their voices rang loud and their message was deafening:
• Ethel Lance's daughter: "I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you. 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, but God forgive you, and I forgive you."
• Husband of Myra Thompson: "You know, I forgive you and my family forgive you. 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, change your ways, no matter what happens to you, and you will be okay."
• Mother of Tywanza Sanders: We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero! But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you."
• Sister of DePayne Middleton Doctor: "For me, I am a work in progress. I am very angry. We are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul, and I also thank God that I won't be around when your Judgement Day comes with Him."
• Relative of Myra Thompson: "I forgive you, and my family forgives you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent."
• Grandchild of Daniel Simmons: "Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof; everyone's plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So, hate won't win."
No one would have blamed any of these deeply hurt people if they had expressed hatred toward Roof. We would have understood if they would have shouted their anger and resentment, and cried for revenge or threatened violence toward the man who senselessly killed their loved ones.
We all have been hurt by others, yes, but few like this and the message here rings loud and clear. Anger, bitterness, resentment and vengeance can rob our very existence of any sembelance of contentment. It can ravage us physically and emotionally. Yet, only when we forgive from our heart can the hurts bestowed upon us can healing truly begin. These individuals, through incredible pain and loss, are teaching our nation an example of how to live not in hate but in love and peace.
Forgiveness does not mean these family members accept Roof's actions. It doesn't minimize the enormity of the wrong he bestowed upon them or the country as a whole. These brave individuals did not excuse the act, but chose to forgive the man who performed the act as a means of acceptance and a way to move on after this terrible tragedy.
The survivors' incredible show of unfathomable generosity and grace after such a devastating loss is almost beyond comprehension. Their response has caught our attention and unified this nation in a way I haven't seen before. A wall of flowers has been built on the sidewalk in front of the church and folks are driving more than a hundred miles to leave flowers on the wall, then driving back home.
Unfortunately, race relations are still strained in America, but this show of forgiveness from those who suddenly lost so much lets us see that goodness will eventually prevail. Many colors blend together to make up our communities. We live, love, laugh and hope; we work to provide for our families; we face pain, sorrow and at times we all experience anger and grief. Holding onto grudges, hanging onto resentments and revisiting injustices while nursing bitterness will only hurt us in the end. In short, forgiveness is not only about the perpetrator, but also a liberating gift you choose to give to yourself, because without it there is only darkness.
The faith of the families of the slain have determined their lives will not be defined by Roof's actions, despite the pain he has inflicted. The attack spurred by hate, and the response of forgiveness, shows that we as a nation will overcome tne darkness and that goodness, kindness and light will triumph.