In the wake of the Charleston shootings, many saw the photo of this little girl standing outside the door of Emanuel AME Church as a symbol of hope and resilience. Here is her story.
Skylar Salaberrios, a little girl who lives in the Bronx, woke up on the morning of her fourth birthday last week to find out some bad news. Her mother, Tiffany, explained that Skylar's fourth birthday celebration -- a party on a beach in the Bronx with a rented pony, cake and, of course, swimming -- would have to be postponed.
The reason why was that something terrible had happened far away. Someone had shot some people in a church the night before, her parents recalled telling her. Her family -- her father, Dimas, is a pastor who often takes short-term trips to places in crisis -- wanted to go there to help the local pastors and lead prayers. Skylar understood what the idea of shooting meant from cartoons on TV, and their family had visited other places unusual for a little girl, from protests in the United States to the tunnels on the North Korean border.
Skylar, her father said, didn't seem too sad her birthday was postponed. For one thing, her party was rescheduled for the Fourth of July, which meant it would end with fireworks. For another, the trip meant she would get to swim in the pool at the hotel. "She knows we may pick up a special toy as well," he said.
On Saturday morning, the family of four flew to Charleston, S.C., and headed to Emanuel AME Church, where nine worshipers were gunned down last week, as people gathered to demonstrate and pray.
Back in the Bronx, Skylar's older sister, 8-year-old Dallas, had seemed frightened when she was told a man shot black people in the church, her mom said, and she had hid under the covers.
Now, in front of the church, Tiffany Salaberrios walked her daughters to the entrance where the gunman had entered the church.
“See, there’s nothing to see here,” she recalled telling them. She walked them up and down the grounds of the church and reminded them of all the people who love them.
“Are you scared now?” Tiffany asked Dallas.
“No, Mommy," Dallas replied.
“Well, then, you’ve won," her mother said.
"What I explained to both of them is that fear is what the gunman would have wanted, even my child to be inflicted with," Tiffany Salaberrios said later. "Outside of killing those people, the hope is that it strikes a chord of fear into other people that could possibly be victimized. And just allowing that to take root in my child’s heart – I refuse to allow that to happen."
Dimas Salaberrios, who preaches in the Bronx projects that gave birth to hip-hop legends like Afrika Bambaataa and was home to horrific gang violence, helped lead the prayer vigils with a few other pastors outside the church. Skylar watched as wave after wave of people of every color came with tears in their eyes.
“We’re not going to let this happen again,” passersby said, the pastor recalled. Dimas held Skylar on his shoulders as they joined in a march on Charleston's main bridge at dusk. He asked a police officer, "Have you ever seen anything like this, people mobilizing on the bridge?"
"The guy said, 'I’ve been on the police force since 1991; this is a first for Charleston and for South Carolina to mobilize like this,'" Dimas recalled. "This was a defining moment of change."
On Sunday morning, a crowd again formed outside of the church. Skylar clutched a little doll of Belle from "Beauty and the Beast," who was wearing her beautiful yellow dress. Skylar wore a pink flowery dress with a big bow that twirls when she dances -- which she loves to do whenever she hears music.
The crowd waited as the bomb squad swept the church level by level. Skylar’s family stood in the cleaned-up crime scene area near the church’s side door, with the families of the victims. Skylar ran around and found little things to give to the family members – a shell from the church parking lot, a small flower. The bomb squad even let Skylar pet their dog.
Skylar kept talking to one man whose sister had been killed and tried to give him a shell. Her mother apologized and said she hoped Skylar wasn't bothering him, but the man didn't mind. He started to talk about his own daughters at that age.
As Skylar's father held her outside the church, two men came out. One talked to him and the rest of the crowd, but the other, an elderly man, stood silent.
“Daddy, can this man talk?” Skylar asked her father, he recalled.
“Nooooo,” the silent man replied to her.
After a few hours outside the church, it was time for the service. The same elderly man opened the door, and a news photographer snapped a photo of him looking at Skylar.
(When Skylar saw the photo in the news later, she told her dad, "That's the man who said 'Nooooo'!")
Eventually everyone was ushered into the church, and Skylar’s family sat with the victim’s families. It was hot. People fanned themselves with small paper fans. Skylar fell asleep in her mother’s arms before the sermon, then woke up as it began.
“The blood of the Mother Emanuel nine requires us to work until not only justice in this case, but for those who are still living in the margin of life. Those who are less fortunate than ourselves," the Rev. Norvel Goff Sr. told the congregation. "That we stay on the battlefield until there is no more fight to be fought. And for that, we say thank you."
Goff mopped his face with a white handkerchief.
"If I see someone try to sleep in this warm room, I promise you I will start with Genesis. And I will read very slowly," Goff joked, before reading from the Book of Psalms.
"Some of us are still trying to seek answers to what happened a week Wednesday... Some folks might need some more time in order to walk in. But for those of us who are here this morning ... because the doors of Mother Emanuel are open on this Sunday, it sends a message to every demon in hell and on earth."
"When times of trouble come into our lives, how do we respond? Do we respond by being afraid and resort to fear? ... We have some difficult days ahead, but the only way that evil can triumph is for good folk to sit down and do nothing. But if we are people of faith, we will join hands and begin to work together to forge a new partnership," the reverend said.
After the service, there was finally time to do 4- and 8-year-old things. The family went back to the hotel and went to the pool.
Normally, Skylar didn't like to get her face wet, even in the bathtub. But this time she held her breath and, for the first time, swam under the water.