The sound of nine doves’ white wings flap above Mother Emanuel – with the church’s bells tolling over a crowd that’s silent, save for the scuffle of thousands of feet on the pavement.
The doves, one in honor of each innocent life violently taken inside the church a year ago, circle the steeple once or twice. They fly high and away together over a city filled with the sounds of bicycles whirring, tourists gawking, glasses clinking – sounds of a city that moves on while still healing from the most unthinkable of tragedies.
For the congregation of Emanuel AME Church and for the Holy City it anchors, healing in the days marking the one-year anniversary of the deaths of the Emanuel Nine sounded like the gentle rustle of sweetgrass flowers tied to a metal gate outside the church, left there by tributepayers to say, “We remember. We care.”
It sounded like the echo of a gospel choir filling the sanctuary, sounds of praise and joy rising up into the highest corners of the room, reaching upward to the ears of the God they worshiped together. “I give myself away so you can use me,” the congregation joined in with arms raised in celebration.
Never miss a local story.
It sounded like the woman beside you at Wednesday night Bible study telling you, “God loves you, and so do I,” as she gathered up her daughter in her arms before sliding from the pew. And all around you, church family and perfect strangers of every color wrapped their arms around one another and said the same, and meant it.
Healing is supporting
A healing Charleston a year after the Emanuel massacre sounded like “Hellos” and “How are yous” from every other stranger on the sidewalk, the sounds of a city that in many ways remains what it always has been – friendly, welcoming, warm – only perhaps even more so in the wake of its tragedy.
“The community has found each other in a greater way,” said the Rev. Betty Deas Clark, who succeeded one of the Emanuel Nine, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, as Emanuel’s pastor. “The love and support and caring and sharing that happened as a result of June 17, it was life-changing.”
The city’s response to the tragedy, Clark said, helped the church to “look beyond despair and to find joy even in the midst of sadness.”
I think we each have grown. We each have matured. We each have fallen in love with each other in a new dimension.”
Emanuel AME pastor the Rev. Betty Deas Clark
“I think we each have grown,” Clark said. “We each have matured. We each have fallen in love with each other in a new dimension. So, I think we’re better off now than we were a year ago.”
For Craig and Cherie Troublefield, the way their city reacted to the killings has offered a lesson in life and humanity for them to teach their 12-year-old son, Colin.
“It’s good for him to see this kind of activity, to realize what’s going on and things that he can change as he gets older,” Craig Troublefield said as the family joined a multiracial crowd of hundreds on a unity walk to Mother Emanuel on Saturday morning. “They have to see that these things happen in the world we’re in and see how people deal with it, hopefully in a positive way.”
Healing is changing
Charleston’s healing, for many, continues to sound like the groans of frustration over what has not changed in a year.
Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., issued a challenge Saturday to the Charleston community to fight hate by making meaningful efforts to really understand and love one another despite all sorts of would-be dividing factors.
“Even though flags come down,” she said, addressing the crowd, referencing the long-cried-for removal of the Confederate battle flag at the S.C. State House after the Emanuel massacre, “we’ve got to try to figure out how to bring down the walls that separate and divide.”
Emanuel pastor Clark, local and state leaders and many others harped on another call to action in the midst of the anniversary commemorations: reformed gun laws.
Zach Croft, a Saluda native living in New York City, traveled back to his home state last week to take part in remembering the Emanuel Nine and to help carry on the legacy of Pinckney, a democratic state senator who had used his platform to decry gun violence before his own violent death. In Saturday’s unity walk, Croft carried a poster calling for gun reform.
... You can’t make change if you don’t know that you need to.”
Zach Croft, a Saluda native living in New York City
“Acknowledging that we aren’t where we need to be is an important part in the healing process because you can’t make change if you don’t know that you need to,” Croft said. “So I think that it’s important for everybody not to just say that we took down a flag, we came together, cried together, but now we’re actually going to do something together.”
Healing is forgiving
For some of those left behind to remember their loved ones lost on June 17, 2015, healing began with the sound of the words, “I forgive you.” And it continues through the sounds of mournful sobs, for many.
The healing is slow, and it might never be complete.
“I talk to her all the time, let her know I still love her. I’m still in love with her,” the Rev. Anthony Thompson said of his wife, Myra, who was among the nine killed. When Thompson faced his wife’s accused killer, Dylann Roof, a year ago, he forgave Roof, and “my peace started immediately.”
“My wife is gone, and eight other people are gone. But God’s plan was to bring them home, and they don’t have to be going through what we’re going through,” Thompson said.
Forgiveness has not come as quickly for Esther Lance, whose mother, Ethel Lance, was also killed that night.
I’m getting there. My sister says she forgives him. My heart is not there.”
Esther Lance, whose mother, Ethel Lance, was killed
“I’m getting there,” Esther Lance said. “My sister says she forgives him. My heart is not there.
“I’ll get there, but not now. He took a lot from us.”
Healing is remembering
Friday evening, with Mother Emanuel’s pews peppered with faces of every race, healing was the sound of nine names read aloud.
Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, the Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thomspon.
The ring of a handbell and a moment of silence followed each name. Thunder began to rumble beyond the stained-glass windows as the those gathered spoke the names of the nine.
And in the end, “May these names never be forgotten.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.