“The tragedy has become defined by the narrative that emerged right after.”
Jennifer Berry Hawes, author of the just-released book, Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness, spent months compiling a narrative that tells all aspects of the Emanuel tragedy — not just that arc of hope that many people cling to.
“The forgiveness narrative gelled around the tragedy, but what I was seeing in the field was different,” says Hawes.
Grace Will Lead Us Home opens with the tragedy itself — the night of June 17, 2015. Based on the recollections of the survivors, police, and security camera footage, we’re dropped into the church; Hawes forces the reader to bear witness to the blood shed that night.
Perhaps, to an outsider, to someone who didn’t live in Charleston during those days, these shocking scenes would be enough. The reader could weep, could Google stories about the shooter, could wallow in the sickness of it all.
But Hawes asks us to do more than that, especially readers who live in the so-called Holy City, four years after the fact, still on shaky ground, wondering how this could have happened here.
Competing grief, as Hawes names one of her chapters, is a messy thing.
“There were major storylines not being told,” says Hawes of the national stories that emerged after the tragedy. “Survivors and family members thought the church wasn’t helping. There were many questions about the handling of donations. There were big divisions in families.”
Fortunately, Hawes knew in 2016 that she would be writing this book, with the help of other Post and Courier reporters (the book is a partner project between P&C and St. Martin’s Press, a Macmillan imprint). She could dive deeper into the stories of the survivors and the families left behind.
“It was the most challenging project I’ve ever done,” says Hawes. “There were the logistical writer reasons, talking to nine families plus Polly Sheppard — there was no way to include everybody. Every family has its sprouts, it’s too confusing, too unwieldy, it’s difficult to pick who to focus on and why.”
Hawes notes that many of the people she talked to and many of the conversations she had never made it into the book. How does one fit a big, complicated, far-reaching tragedy into an easy-to-follow storyline? And how does one decide how it ends?
After the tragedy, and the narrative of hope, the deep divisions created by questions of money and donations, the battle over the Confederate flag, and the never-ending debate about gun control, there were the trials — both a federal and state trial for Dylann Roof.
One night, at the conclusion of the federal trial that took place in downtown Charleston, Hawes went to visit Sharon Risher, daughter of one of the victims, Ethel Lance, in her hotel room. “She was struggling with how she’d forgive Dylann,” says Hawes. Many of the families forgave Roof just days after he killed their loved ones. It was a glimmer of hope for some, but it was also an incredibly difficult time for other families who didn’t feel quite so forgiving.
“I was standing with her in her hotel room. We weren’t really speaking. We were just being. Then she stood up and realized she could forgive him,” says Hawes. Dylann Roof had been found guilty of 33 charges. He was sentenced to death.
“She thought there could be a lone rogue juror who sympathized with him,” says Hawes of Risher’s hesitation to forgive. “She was very obsessed with that. Releasing the weight of that gave her the space to forgive him.”
What has changed since Emanuel? The flag has come down from Statehouse grounds. Charleston City Council voted to apologize for the city’s role in slavery. The International African American Museum, located at Gadsden’s Wharf, reached its fundraising goal of $75 million.
Nonetheless, racial divisions in Charleston have not been erased. South Carolina still does not have a hate crime law.
Last month, 12 people died in a mass shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach.
Mass shootings continue every week in this country.
After Emanuel, Hawes points to smaller changes, the quiet and personal ones.
“Mt. Zion AME and Grace Episcopal get together for a book study that meets every Tuesday,” says Hawes. “It’s bringing people together who otherwise might not have met or discussed the history of the city or racism today.”
Proceeds from Grace Will Lead Us Home go to a paid summer internship at the Post and Courier for journalism students of color.