Nadine Collier became famous a year ago for three words she said to Dylann Roof, the young white man who a few days earlier had gunned down her mother and eight other African-Americans during a Bible study at their Charleston church: “I forgive you.”
With those words about the June 17, 2015 killings, Collier set off a global debate about forgiveness.
A year later, her grief is heavy. Collier misses the sound of her mother’s voice, the smile on her face she greeted worshipers as an usher at Emanuel AME Church, the spring in her step when she led the procession for Communion.
Collier said that she learned in the bond hearing that forgiveness isn’t weak. It’s not resignation or a duty done begrudgingly. And it is not easy.
The 48-year-old Collier is trying to move on, but progress is slow. Especially with the legal delays. Roof’s trial was supposed to begin in July, not long after the anniversary of the massacre at “Mother Emanuel.” It has been delayed now till at least January 2017.
But her initial words, two days after the horror, hang powerfully in the public conscience and conversation.
“I forgive you,” she told him. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to 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.”
That’s what her mother would have wanted, she knows. “I know she would have said, ‘That’s my baby. I taught her well.”
It was in that hearing that she learned about forgiveness, its power and its challenge.
“Forgiveness is power,” she said, sitting in her North Charleston home. “It means you can fight everything and anything head on.”
The world has heaped praise on Collier and others for their acts of faith and forgiveness, and they have been sustained by the support and prayers of well-wishers from around the globe. But the shadow of grief remains.
Most days, the home that the Rev. Anthony Thompson shared with his wife Myra, who was leading the Bible study at Emanuel the night she was killed, seems too quiet.
There are reminders of Myra everywhere: fresh flowers on the table, just the way she liked them; a photo of her on the wall; her Bible, with text marked for that night — the parable of the sower from Mark 4:16-20, along with the notes from the Bible study.
When he last saw her, Myra was finishing up some last-minute notes, just before she left on June 17. She seemed to glow, he said, as if everything were right in the world. Then she walked out the door before he’d had the chance to say goodbye.
Thompson had hoped to attend the Bible study that night, but Myra told him not to. His church was kicking off vacation Bible school that night, and he was needed there. He had finished up at church and had dinner waiting for her on the table when the call came.
Even today, he has a hard time believing she is gone.
They’d met nearly 40 years earlier, while students at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. He, a Naval vet, had a wife and daughter back in Charleston. She had a son there too, and would spend the weekends back home, working at McDonald’s and caring for her son.
One weekend, she missed the bus home. He offered her a ride. She was suspicious.
“I want you to know that nothing is going to happen,” she told him. “I am going to school. I don’t need a man in my life.”
“I’m just offering you a ride,” he remembers telling her.
They kept in touch over the years. Myra taught at a school where Anthony’s son was a student. They lived in the same part of town, and would pass on the street occasionally.
About a decade later, both had been through a divorce. She called him up. It’d be all right if you want to take me out, she told him.
They settled in a modest, neat brick home, not far from The Citadel’s baseball field, where the wall is now adorned with a “Charleston Strong” mural.
Thompson said he hadn’t planned on attending that bond hearing at first. But something prompted him to go. In the courtroom, Thompson felt God speak to him, telling him to forgive Roof.
“I wasn’t thinking about him,” he said. “I wasn’t planning on going. But God put it in my head. It was like he was speaking through me.”
After the hearing, Thompson felt a sense of peace.
“Later I said: ‘Oh my gosh, that was for me,’” he said. “That was for my kids, and me, so we could have peace.”
Even for those who haven’t forgiven, it remains a goal — if elusive.
Life has been hard over the past year for Bethane Middleton-Brown, whose sister, the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, left behind four children. Brown is now raising them, along with her own three children. Middleton-Brown’s taken to referring to Roof as “Lucifer,” and believes he was possessed by hate. She refuses to hate him though, and says her sister would want her to forgive Roof. But she’s not ready to.
“I can’t get my sister back,” she said in a recent interview. “The wound is still fresh — I can’t make sense of it.”
Middleton-Brown described her sister as a generous person, always ready to give, even though she never had much money. What she had in abundance was love and faith.
“She expected a lot of God — and she gave a lot,” she said.
These days, her life is filled with taking care of seven children, ferrying them back and forth to basketball games and other events, along the demands of working and grieving.
She also prays, locking herself in the bathroom at least once a day to read the Bible on her smartphone and talk with God. It’s an idea that one of DePayne’s daughter suggested, inspired by the Christian film, “The War Room.”
“I really feel like God is speaking to me in that time,” she says.
Still, she worries that things won’t get better.
“I don’t know if we will be ever to overcome racism,” she said. “All it takes is one bullet, or one piece of hate to kill someone.”
And weight of grief is so heavy, at times it seems it will never leave. For now, Brown says she is trying to live out the faith that her sister taught her.
“God is taking me to a higher level,” she said. “If the man who killed my sister was looking for hate — he came to the wrong place.”
For Shirrene Goss, part of the answer of why it all happened is simply found in countering Roof’s hatred with love.
Goss’ face lights up whenever she talks about her little brother Tywanza, among those killed. “He was a shining star,” she says. “He had to shine brightly.”
The two were as close as brother and sister could be. She was 14 years older, and often cared for him as a baby while their parents were at work.
She changed his diaper, rocked him to sleep and watched out for him. While away in college, she still kept in touch, and even after he was grown, Tywanza would call and ask for advice. So it was no surprise when he called on a Wednesday afternoon in June.
It was an ordinary workday, said Goss. She was on her way to meet with her manager at work. Her brother had a few minutes and wanted to chat.
Tywanza, an aspiring poet, was headed back to graduate school and ready for classes to begin. His whole life was in front of him. Then after a few minutes, he had to run. He hung up and that was it. He was gone.
That night, Tywanza and his aunt, Susie Jackson, were both killed while attending Bible study.
A year later, Goss says she has not grieved yet. That is in part because she cannot grasp that the deaths of her brother and aunt were intentional. She hasn’t heard all the details of what happened that night, and isn’t sure she wants to. But she also plans to attend the trial in January.
Perhaps by then, she says, she will be ready.
Other family members of those killed that night have forgiven Roof. Goss isn’t there yet.
“I can’t say that I have forgiven him,” she said. “I know I need to as a believer.”
Perfect strangers often text her — or send Facebook messages — to check in. Cards still arrive in the mail. People still tell her that they are praying for her family.
Don’t stop, says Goss. And don’t forget what happened that night. Instead, she says, people who were moved by the deaths of Tywanza and the other victims should respond with love. Spread the love of Jesus. That’s the simplest thing anyone can do.
She has no answers yet. But they will come, someday.
Bob Smietana is a freelance religion writer based in Nashville. He reported on the anniversary of the shooting at Emanuel AME for last month’s Christianity Today.