On 17 June 2015, Dylann Roof, aged 21, opened fire on a Bible study in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, in Charleston, South Carolina.
No shooting in the United States has ever been quite like this one in respect to its intended purpose and outcome. Racial tensions within the US are still high, but the aftermath of the Charleston shooting showed that there can be great grace and love in the midst of great hatred and tragedy.
The infamous shooting took place at Emanuel AME Church, on Calhoun Street in Charleston, South Carolina. This historic black church is one of the oldest in the nation and a key location for African Americans due to its significance during the slavery era and Civil Rights movement. It is the oldest AME church in the South and often referred to as ‘Mother Emanuel’. Dylann Roof, a Caucasian young man from Columbia, South Carolina, entered the church at about 8.00pm, for their Wednesday night Bible study, and asked to sit next to Rev. Clementa Pinckney, minister of the church. Pinckney was also a state senator and prominent spokesman for civil rights.
After an hour of studying with the congregation, Dylann began to disagree with them over Scripture. Then he pulled a .45 calibre handgun from his hip pack and pointed it at Susie Jackson, an 87-year-old member.
Her nephew, Tywanza Sanders, tried to talk him out of it and asked him why he was going to shoot them. Roof answered: ‘I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go’ (New York Times, 18 June).
As Sanders moved in front of Mrs Jackson, Roof shot him first and then began shooting the others at close range. As he opened fire, he yelled racial slurs at the congregants and reloaded five times before fleeing the building.
Sanders’s mother and her five-year-old niece avoided being shot only by playing dead. Dylann also spared one woman so she could tell others what happened. This witness related that Roof pointed the gun at his own head but failed to shoot himself because he had run out of ammo. Then he fled the building.
Nine lay dead or dying in his wake, among them four pastors, a regional library manager, high school coach, university enrolment counsellor and university graduate.
The area around the church soon become abuzz with policemen and the FBI, as they searched for the fugitive and locked down the surrounding area. As the officers sought Roof, pastors and other chaplains of all races came to the scene to pray for the victims and their families.
The following morning, police released information about the shooter through news networks and leaflets. He had been face-on in his attack and so his face and car were well displayed on security camera footage.
His friends and family were also contacted to provide more information about his person and why he might have done this. Dylann Roof was arrested that morning in Shelby, North Carolina, after a Christian florist, Debbie Dills, noticed his car while she was heading to work. She saw the South Carolina tag on his car, as well as a Confederate flag bumper decoration, and thought something was odd. As she pulled up beside him, she recognised the driver as the shooter and called her boss asking what she should do.
Her boss contacted the police and Dills trailed Roof for 35 miles before he was arrested. After news agents credited Debbie as a hero, she responded: ‘It was God who made this happen. It don’t have nothing to do with Debbie. It don’t have nothing to do with Todd [her boss]. It’s all about [God]. He answered the prayers of those people who were praying in Charleston last night, who were holding hands and praying’ (The Guardian, 18 June).
Dylann was arrested without any struggle and extradited back to Charleston to be indicted for his crimes.
The Charleston church massacre, as it is sometimes referred to, has had a very different outcome compared to similar events in the US.
Events such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, brought about great unrest and tension between races, and riots lasting for days and even months. The event that happened on 17 June in Charleston had a completely different effect.
Immediately after the shooting, Christians from the area joined hands to pray for the victims and their families. Men and women, white and black, joined hands and prayed fervently for justice to be done.
On the morning after the shooting, Joseph Riley, Mayor of Charleston, responded to the attack: ‘This hateful person came to this community with this crazy idea that he would be able to divide us, but all he did was make us more united and love each other even more’ (Wall Street Journal, ‘A bow to Charleston’).
This was manifested in the many prayer meetings and vigils held in major cities of the state the following day and week. People from all over the city came to lay flowers and bows by the door of the church, in respect for the victims and their families.
That Sunday, Emanuel AME Church opened wide her doors and hundreds came to worship God. The service was marked by great love and faith that God is our refuge and strength.
Charleston is known as the ‘holy city’ due to its significant number of historic churches, but there was something different here. By God’s grace, people of all races were united in faith and love in Jesus Christ, and sought to encourage one another and pray in a time of great suffering.
While the prayer vigils and unity expressed by Charlestonians were certainly beautiful and God-glorifying, the responses of the victims’ families toward Dylann Roof during his bond hearing were truly astonishing.
They had every reason to hate the man who destroyed their lives and loved ones, but the victims’ families could only respond to Roof with tender love and forgiveness. Each family member forgave Dylann for his crime toward them and their loved ones, and pleaded for him to repent and seek forgiveness from God.
Even as the court proceedings continued, people prayed and sang hymns outside the courthouse. What a display of God’s glory and love in such a horrible event!
After the victims of the shooting were buried and given state recognition (especially Rev. Clementa Pinckney as state senator), things took a different turn, especially outside Charleston.
Dylann Roof’s crimes stemmed from a deep hatred of African Americans and was based upon white supremacist thought. Pictures were found of him posing with the Confederate battle flag, while bearing apartheid flags from South Africa and Rhodesia on his jacket. His goal was to start a race war. Thankfully, that has not happened and I pray that we will continue to be united in our love for Jesus Christ.
One of the more tangible results from this shooting has concerned the Confederate battle flag. It was once the battle flag for several Confederate armies but has since become a controversial symbol. Some claim it as their heritage in remembering fallen ancestors, while others consider it a symbol of racism and oppression.
Since the shooting, several Southern states have taken the flag down from prominent locations on State Houses; and companies like Google and Amazon have restricted its sale over the internet and in other retail markets.
But this issue has caused a lot of stir in Columbia, South Carolina. South Carolina raised this flag over the top of its State House in 1961, in a move to remember the beginning of the Civil War and to protest the Civil Rights Movement. Only recently had it been removed from the top of the State House to stand beside a Confederate memorial on the State House grounds. Millions of citizens of South Carolina and the United States have been begging to take it down (some even attempting to do it themselves). Then, on 10 July this year, the Confederate battle flag was taken down after the passing of a Bill by the South Carolina government. It has been placed in the local military history museum.
Even though the events surrounding the Confederate battle flag have overshadowed the loving and unifying response from the citizens of Charleston and families of AME Church victims, God has been glorified through their reactions. May the Lord continue to heal the racial tension that still plagues the US to this day. May we experience the words of Paul, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).
Brothers and sisters in Britain, please pray for the church here in the USA in light of recent events. The church is now in the minority and persecution of all sorts will assuredly come.
Please pray that the church — black, white and all other races — would be united in Christ and in hope of the promise Christ gave us in Matthew 16:18, ‘I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’.