“This was our church.”
“How could this happen?”
I wanted to write about my time in Charleston, South Carolina, one year later. The Bible Study room. Mother Emmanuel. The families. What I wasn’t anticipating was where I’d be writing this piece from – Orlando, Florida. The location of this country’s most recent mass shooting. There are so many eerie, awful similarities… not only in the words uttered by law enforcement, victims’ families and survivors, but in the location. In both cases, the killers dared to enter sacred spaces of two communities – an African-American church in Charleston, and a gay nightclub in Orlando – murdering innocent people who should have been safe.
Here we are, from one tragedy to the next, in a blink.
Just before the anniversary of the Charleston shooting, then-interim pastor Rev. Norvel Goff opened the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church to me. We walked down that rich red carpet in the sanctuary, perched ourselves on those historic wooden pews and discussed life and loss and forgiveness.
I was honored to be there, and to be granted rare access into the Bible Study Room, a space where evil slipped through the side door a year ago today … and transformed the hallowed to horrible. I was honored and anxious. Anxious to do this community justice. Anxious to find a way to revere the nine precious people who perished that day. Anxious to be in such a sacred space. We would enter only once, I told my CNN crew, out of respect. We would get what we needed, as we say in television news, in “one take.”
Rev. Goff led me from the sanctuary downstairs and we approached the Bible Study Room together. My heart was pounding as I thought of those nine souls who had warmly welcomed a stranger. We walked into the room.
And then… nothing happened.
As we talked, there were no tears. No anger. No evidence of the terror inside that room. The only reminder: a giant wooden cross etched with the nine names of the victims and their faces. There were chairs and tables. Staff coming and going. Lunch being ordered. Signs of life…even laughter. This, I realized, was more than a room. It was a symbol of a city refusing to allow evil to hold onto its grip.
When I close my eyes and think about my time in Charleston one year later, my mind immediately goes to Polly Sheppard. She was one of the 12 in the Bible Study room that night listening to cries for help and explosive gunshots. Polly was the one who that madman – or as she prefers, God – chose to spare: “I am going to let you live so you can tell the story of what happened.” But it’s the lesson they were studying that night that stays with me. Mark 4:13-20, a passage about sowing seeds on good ground. Despite the attempt by the gunman to plant seeds of hate and racism in that church and our nation that night…Polly smiled: “he was in the wrong place.”
In Charleston. Orlando. San Bernardino. Newtown. So much the same. The same grief and anger. The same stories of heroism and hope. The same need to remember and rebuild. The same words repeated by families and first responders. But those sad phrases weren’t the only ones I heard repeated in both places. I also heard these two words wherever I went, loud and clear, over and over:
Video produced by Lindsay Perna, Jack Regan, John McAfee and Rich Brooks.