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SC Lede: 'Grace Will Lead Us Home'

Jennifer Berry Hawes/St. Martin's Publishing Group

On this episode of South Carolina Lede, host Gavin Jackson speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning Post and Courier reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes about her book, "Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness." Hawes chronicles the tragic shooting of nine parishioners at the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston and its aftermath through pointed, detailed accounts of the victims and their familes.

You can read an excerpt from "Grace Will Lead Us Home" below.

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Grace Will Lead Us Home

Editor’s note:

In this excerpt, survivor Felicia Sanders, who played dead with her little granddaughter as Roof shot and killed her son Tywanza, is struggling with a lack of ministry from Emanuel’s leaders. Out of the blue a few months after the shooting, Felicia and her husband, Tyrone, receive a call from then-Gov. Nikki Haley.

Felicia continued to yearn to hear from her church leaders, although none came to her home. While she waited, Governor Haley called instead with a surprising request.

“Can I come see you?”

Haley needed to meet Felicia. She needed to talk to her in person and let her know how sorry she was for all that she’d endured. So much well-placed attention had gone to those killed that she worried about those who had lived. It was selfish on some level, Haley knew. But she simply needed to know that Felicia was okay.

She also wanted to meet the woman who’d forgiven the racist killer. Haley, herself a Christian, wondered: Could I do that?

Felicia invited her over.

A few days later, Haley rode in a plain black SUV with two staffers and her security detail. They turned down a long, two-lane residential street, passing house after house, including one with a Confederate flag hanging on its porch. Then they turned down the Sanderses’ long driveway, nestled by two big live oak trees.

Haley emerged from the SUV into the humid summer air, partly as the state’s governor, partly as a mother herself, mostly as someone worried about the woman inside the house who had survived something so unimaginable. She walked to the front steps and climbed onto a long front porch with a white rail. Felicia and Tyrone emerged from the front door.

Haley had attended Tywanza’s funeral. She had seen Felicia and Tyrone there and, later, at the ceremony to lower the flag. However, they hadn’t really met, not in a quiet way like this one. Felicia led her into a living room just inside the front door, toward a couch, two chairs, and photos of Tywanza. She asked Haley to please choose a seat. The governor sat down facing Felicia. Tyrone joined them.

Yet, beyond their overt graciousness, Haley felt a wall of suspicion, as if the couple wondered: Why was the governor here? Was she hoping to gain something from them?

Haley presented Felicia with a crisply folded American flag that had flown in honor of Tywanza above the State House, along with one of the nine pens she used to sign the bill lowering the Confederate flag. They began to relax a little. Felicia described how she couldn’t even hear gunshots on a TV show anymore, not without reliving those horrific moments.

Where Felicia seemed so sad and broken, Tyrone came across as edgy and hard. For a moment, the governor pondered two such different responses to grief.

Then she asked them to tell her more about Tywanza.

Felicia smiled widely. She described her son’s poetry, his jokes, his dreams. Tyrone, a wiry bald man with a commanding voice, admitted that he couldn’t stop listening to a Lion King song that reminded him of his baby boy. Tywanza was his Simba. They spoke about their granddaughter, the huggy little girl who survived the shooting, and how hard they were trying to keep her life as normal as possible. Theirs was a house that had welcomed so many children over the years— their own, family members’, friends’, others’. Felicia wanted to love and rescue them all. But she hadn’t been able to save her own son.

When she cried, Haley handed her a tissue. When the governor cried, Felicia handed her one.

“Tell me how to help you,” Haley finally said.

Felicia looked back with the saddest eyes Haley had ever seen. Felicia’s answer had nothing to do with politics, not gun control or race relations or any of the things Haley typically heard. Instead, Felicia explained that they desperately needed spiritual guidance. They needed to know why their son had died in front of her, in a church, in their church, trying to protect them all. They needed to know God’s intentions in this tragedy.

They spoke for more than an hour before Haley felt it was time to go. She didn’t want to overstay her welcome. They said good-byes, and she stepped back onto the front porch. Haley had almost reached her SUV, her security detail still waiting in the driveway, when she heard Felicia’s voice behind her from the porch.

“I got to tell him I loved him,” she called. “And he told me he loved me, too.”

From GRACE WILL LEAD US HOME by Jennifer Berry Hawes. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Publishing Group.

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Gavin Jackson graduated with a visual journalism degree from Kent State University in 2008 and has been in the news industry ever since. He has worked at newspapers in Ohio, Louisiana and most recently in South Carolina at the Florence Morning News and Charleston Post and Courier.