Forgiveness: Four Years After The Charleston Church Massacre

Jun 25, 2019

Many remember where they were when they heard the news: nine people gunned down inside an historic African American church in Charleston at the hands of a stranger they welcomed to bible study. But few know the passage they read.

Reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes does.

"It's called the 'Parable of the Sower,'" she says. "It's a story where Jesus talks about what happens when you throw seeds of faith onto different types of terrain."

Hawes writes about the tragedy in her first book, "Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness.."

The idea is if you throw seeds of faith onto rocky, depleted soil they wither and die. But if you throw seeds of faith onto fertile soil they grow and flourish.

"It’s a clear representation of what you had at the table that night," Hawes says.

The young man didn't visit Emanuel AME Church for faith. He came to kill black people in hopes of inciting hate. He waited until the parishioners closed their eyes in prayer, before unleashing more than 70 bullets at close range.

Two days later, several family members faced the killer in court. Some did the unthinkable: They publically forgave him. The city did not erupt in violence. A nation was stunned.

"I watched reporter, after reporter, after reporter come to Charleston and write basically that same story," says Hawes. "It was an inspiring story, but it's just one piece of the story."

Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes writes for the Post and Courier in Charleston
Credit Grace Beahm Alford

While the national press packed up, Hawes stayed with the story, the families who lost loved ones, and the survivors scarred by what they felt and saw.

"Many families dealt with tremendous anger. They dealt with all kinds of divisions within their own families and with the church."

For some, family riffs were further fueled by grief. Others felt abandoned, even betrayed by their beloved church. Not everyone forgave, although conflicted by their Christian beliefs.

"Some of them have gotten there in the four years since," Hawes says of forgiveness. "Some of them don’t intend to. It's a much more complicated story than most people realized and that's what I felt was important for readers to know."

Hawes tells their stories with intimate detail, giving voice to their pain, struggles and faith. She also provides historical context to a city lesser known for its roots to slavery.

"The reality is real life is messy," she says. "There is no neat bow at the end of every story. People deal with difficulties in different ways."

Hawes says the proceeds from the book will fund summer internships for journalists of color at the Post and Courier. "We’re working hard to better reflect the communities we cover."