On the evening of June 17, 2015, 21-year old Dylann Roof walked into Charleston’s “Mother Emanuel” church. There, he found a group of the faithful about to begin a Bible study in the basement of the South Carolina church. They welcomed him and invited him to join them. He sat down. He listened and spoke. At the end of the hour, the participants began to pray. At that point, the young man opened fire in what became one of the country’s deadliest mass shootings at a place of worship. In the end, nine of those who had gathered that night to reflect on the Word of God lay dead. Only three survived.
The police caught Roof the following day. He was unrepentant. He hoped his evil act in targeting one of the country’s oldest black churches would ignite a race war. He was wrong.
A new film, "Emanuel: The Untold Story of the Victims and Survivors of the Charleston Church Shooting," tells what came next as survivors lived out Christ’s hard teaching (Matthew 18:22), to forgive the sins of our brothers “seventy-seven times.” It’s a story of true Christian forgiveness – a story that can help all of us who struggle to multiply our capacity to forgive.
This beautifully filmed documentary begins with important history lessons on Charleston and American race relations. The city was the “premiere” slave port and hosted a fair share of activity and activism during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church – known tenderly as “Mother Emanuel” – was founded in 1816 as an anti-slavery church. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the church in 1962 and urged its black congregation to register to vote.
Emanuel also captures the evil hatred of white supremacy that consumed Roof. Video of him prior to his attack, security camera footage of his casually entering and leaving the church that fateful evening, his arrest by police and questioning by investigators is, to say the least, haunting.
But the film does much more than contextualize the massacre and provide a post-incident recap. It captures the movement of the Holy Spirit in the survivors of the Charleston shooting – those who survived the shooting and family members of those who did not – as well as the men and women who came to console the survivors.
When Roof first appeared in court by video conference for a bond hearing after his arrest, the judge offered shooting survivors and relatives of the victims the chance to speak to the assailant directly. Only just beginning to mourn their losses, they told Roof that they were praying for his soul.
And that they forgave him.
“Something came over me,” said the adult daughter of one of the slain, explaining her words of forgiveness at the bail hearing. Another young man later admitted surprise after he told Roof, “We already forgive you.”
Getting beyond the gravity of the offense committed at Mother Emanuel and looking past the empty, unrepentant eyes of Dylann Roof to a land of grace and forgiveness – well, it all seems so impossible. It probably is for anyone acting alone. “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways,” remarked President Obama in his powerful eulogy of Mother Emanuel’s pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Rather than allow hatred to inhabit their hearts, the survivors and relatives of Roof’s victims were open to the Holy Spirit. You can see the effect of the Spirit on their faces as they were interviewed. And the impossible became possible.
Forgiveness – a great act of love, a great act of release – was a salve to their sorrow. Such amazing grace – God-given to anyone willing to receive it – made forgiveness abundant in Charleston, allowing the survivors and relatives of the Mother Emanuel Nine to forgive. Not just once, but 77 times or more.
Emanuel will show nationwide in theaters for only two days, June 17 and 19. Don’t miss it. It is the unusual summer movie that all will be the better for seeing.