It was one year ago today that the unthinkable became a tragic reality for those devoted Christians who gathered together in the haven of their own church. The day that a young white supremacist took nine innocent, beautiful, black parishioners' lives at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church at 110 Calhoun Street in Charleston, South Carolina.
My family and I had not yet moved to Charleston in June, 2015, but we were in town on holiday, with the dream of moving here growing in our hearts. We were blocks away from the church that evening when we decided to go back to our place on James Island, instead of staying downtown for dinner. It was 98 degrees outside, but the heat index put the temperature at 103. We were feeling ready to unwind and relax in air conditioning.
We stopped in at the Queen Street Grocery to grab a cold beverage and caught up with the owner, Rob Bouton. Strangely, as Rob was showing us a photograph of himself in a movie role that was hanging on the wall, it suddenly dropped to the ground and the glass shattered. I marked it as an omen for some reason.
That night, as we were recuperating from a long, hot day spent exploring the city, we heard a series of sirens. The screeching sound did not seem to relent, and it became clear that something serious had occurred. After all, this was not New York City, where sirens and mayhem are the norm, this was laid back Lowcountry!
Eventually we went to sleep, albeit with some trepidation on my part. Having lived through 9/11 in New York City, my radar is always on now. My instincts guide me well, and I was unsettled.
I awakened early and as per my usual, checked the news on my phone. I could not breathe, nor could I speak to my husband, in complete shock and horror! Unspeakable violence, unfathomable evil had menaced the heart and soul of the South, the so called, "Holy City."
We wandered in a trance through the day, the killer still at large. Not wanting to scare our ten year any more than he already was, we planned a trip to the James Island County water park. It was another hot and sunny summer day, and we were still "on vacation."
As details of the events unfolded and the criminal was apprehended, we continued to talk about moving to Charleston from the Charlotte area. Watching and listening to the families of the victims respond to the tragedy, I felt so proud, so deeply moved by their grace, and even more aligned with this incredible city. Nadine Collier, the youngest daughter of Ethel Lance, a long-time custodian at the AME church and one of the nine victims, had the incredible wherewithal to address the killer afterwards, saying,..."But God forgives you, and I forgive you."
How is this possible? How spiritually evolved must you be to choose grace and forgiveness, less than 24 hours after your loved one was senselessly murdered in their house of worship? I know not everyone could embrace this message, but the fact that it was shared with the world, and repeated by many of the victims family members, shone a beacon light of LOVE upon us all. The city of Charleston was suddenly thrust into the eyes of the world as a most venerable place, worthy of it's favored epithet, "The Holy City".
Fast forward to June one year later. We have lived here since September and I've become more and more embedded in the culture of this town. My dear friend, Frank Russen, who runs the esteemed Principle Gallery on Queen Street, has made me President of the Renaissance Women of Charleston. Through this affiliation, I recently had the privilege of meeting some of the families of the Emanuel 9. The gallery hosted a portrait show of paintings created by nine artists to memorialize each victim. It was at this private viewing that I spoke with many family and friends who were there to accept these gifts, and to join in honoring their loved ones with the artists.
I spoke with the husband of Myra Thompson, the Rev. Anthony Thompson, a man of immense presence in his quietude. It was so humbling to be in the room with all of these beautiful people who were still coming to terms with the enormity of what had occurred one year ago; thrust into the world stage on one hand, while grappling with this tremendous private loss in their families, which was so very palpable. Our conversations were poignant and deep. We talked about our similarities, and yet the divide that still exists between the races. It was incredibly tender to watch the generations of family interacting and having their photos taken in front of their loved ones portraits. These folks were kind, open, genuine, and so very grateful for these small tokens, a likeness of their beloved family member shared through the generosity of these artists.
I was indelibly touched, and internally I continued to mull over this hate crime and it's effects in my mind and heart. Why do we have such a continental divide between us still? Do we not all share the same hopes and dreams for our children? Do we not all gather together to celebrate, and to mourn our loved ones? And what about the gun laws? Will our government ever muster the courage to set aside their party lines and fears, to reach over the fence and shake hands on this one issue, to provide an element of safety to the people of this country?
We will not evolve and overcome injustices such as these without much introspection, shared empathy, forgiveness and a true belief in the equality of all people's. We need to break bread together and sit in meditation and prayer side-by-side. Our children need to play with each other and make art together. We can learn from each other by sharing our stories, our time and our passions. We have work to do. One person, one conversation, one opportunity for connection at a time. And the time is now!