Not even two days after the 2015 shooting that killed nine worshipers in the African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston, South Carolina, some victims’ family members publicly forgave the racist shooter.
At the court bond hearing of the gunman less than 48 hours after he murdered their loved ones, several relatives of those slain amazed the American public by expressing forgiveness for the young white man who killed the African Americans at the AME Church. He was hoping to reignite the race wars, he told police. Instead, he received the survivors’ absolution.
“I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, whose mother Ethel Lance, 70, was killed in the church. “And have mercy on your soul.”
Collier was not alone. Several other AME church members expressed anger and deep sadness because of their losses, but also forgiveness.
Polly Sheppard was not at the bond hearing. Though she had been in the church and survived the June 17, 2015, shooting, she did not want to speak publicly during the initial months.
“I kept quiet because I wanted to go to those funerals, and [the media] didn’t know my face. I would be able to go without disrupting the funerals,” she said. It was several months before she spoke publicly about the violent ordeal. “I wanted to give the families time to grieve and everything before I started talking.”
Today she has become one of the informal spokespersons for the survivors, and her message is often about the power of forgiveness.
Forgiveness “relieves all the pressure off of you,” Sheppard said. “You’re at peace. It’s an inward peace.”
Since the shooting, Sheppard has found herself in an unfamiliar position.
“I keep saying it’s a new job, to talk,” said Sheppard who was 70 the night of the shooting. A retired nurse, her natural inclination had long been to shy away from the spotlight.
Nearly four years after the shooting, Sheppard sat in her modest Summerville home, a large painting of President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama on the wall. “I like to talk about forgiveness,” she said. “We forgave him, and I didn’t want the death penalty for him, either. I wanted him to be able to repent and turn his life around.”
Summerville is a Charleston suburb, approximately 25 miles from downtown.
Sheppard often travels to meet with other shooting-incident survivors. She recalled one man who argued with her about forgiveness.
She was meeting with survivors of the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue hate-crime shooting in Pittsburgh. An anti-semitic killed 11 people and injured seven during Shabbat services on October 27, 2018.
One synagogue survivor told Sheppard he did not think he would ever be able to forgive the man who took so many lives that morning.
“Well, you have to live with that. It’s a problem. If you forgive him, you can go on with your life. It takes time, and so it's not done right away,” she told him.
In addition to her faith, which she admits was temporarily shaken that violent night in the AME church where she worshipped for nearly four decades, she is also a great believer in survivors seeking professional help.
“They need counseling, they really need counseling,” she said, then turning to advice. “And, stay in prayer.”
For her, though, forgiveness has been the key as both a survivor and a believer.
“The forgiveness part, I think it helped,” she said. “People will call me, and tell me how glad [they were] to hear me, and how good they felt after I left.”
The gunman in the AME church told Sheppard, “I’m going to leave you to tell the story,” she recounted, explaining why she was not shot. She said she is doing just that, but not by telling his story the way he had hoped.
“That’s why I say divine intervention,” she said, indicating she was doing God’s work. “I’m not telling the story about him. I’m telling the story on forgiveness. And how God will lead you in the right direction if you listen.”
For one survivor whose son was killed on the streets of greater Charleston, she is not there yet.
“A lot of people, they come up with, ‘You should forgive him,’” said Tisa Whack, whose son Tyrell Miles, 23, was shot by a young man who lived nearby. The man, who is serving time in prison, never expressed regret for shooting her son and one of his friends, which makes it difficult for Whack to feel forgiveness. “I tell people I’m not there yet, and I’m not gonna lie to anybody. I hate this guy to a core.”
Sitting in her office during her lunch hour, surrounded by photographs of her son, Whack referred to members of the AME church.
“A lot of people use the example of the Mother Emanuel, when they talk about how they forgave and it was even less than 24 hours. And I respect them for that,” said Whack, whose son Ty was her only child. She and another mom grieving her own dead son started the nonprofit We Are Their Voices, to help other young men in the community.
She said her son’s murder made her question her faith. Though she regularly attends church again, she is not in a place to forgive.
“I still struggle with it,” Whack said frankly.
A survivor of a different shooting does believe forgiveness helped him deal with the ripple effects of losing his father to gun violence.
Pardeep Kaleka’s father and five others died in the 2012 shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and four others were wounded by the neo-Nazi who entered the gurwara, or temple, on August 5, 2012. Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, was president of the suburban Milwaukee gurwara.
Kaleka found his way to forgiveness partly through his unexpected friendship with Arno Michaelis, a former neo-Nazi and former member of the violent, white supremacists group the Hammerskins. The Sikh Temple killer also belonged to that skinhead group, whose members are often in racist rock bands.
A reformed Michaelis reached out to Kaleka after the shooting, offering his support. Eventually he and Kaleka wrote the book “The Gift of Our Wounds.” Kaleka said their connection created an atmosphere of forgiveness of the man who killed his father and other worshipers. The book focuses on learning about different cultures to bring understanding and forgiveness.
After the temple shooting, Kaleka went to graduate school to become a counselor. He counsels people to forgive, when they are ready.
“I would put the possibility in their hearts that, you know, forgiveness is a journey that they might want to take,” said Kaleka, sitting in his counseling office after a workout. He added that he would not suggest it too close to the date of their trauma. “What we get to is a place where I [suggest they] look back at their pain and they’re going to, you know, perhaps have this transformational approach to life.”
Kaleka said that through forgiveness and acceptance of his vulnerability, he has learned to live in the moment and appreciate the life he was given.
“In just the weirdest way, I’m much more happy,” he said. “And I don’t think that would have happened if the shooting wouldn’t have happened.”
Kaleka recently took a new job, a move that seemed natural, given his path. In June 2019, Kaleka was named executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, a nonprofit of faith leaders dedicated to building dialogue and relationships to counter hate and fear, and to fight for social equality.
“When we talk about forgiveness and we talk about acts of kindness, we talk about, you know, who we are, who we’re meant to be,” said Kaleka, a father of four. “And I think those journeys are the ones that are the most worth taking.”
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.