Last week, a group met to study the Bible, and everything changed. Nine lives were cut short at the hand of a senseless murderer. Families were left to grieve the loss of their loved ones. A community was left to pick up the brokenness. A nation is left wondering how we will heal. How we will overcome?
We felt a particular betrayal because the people of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church welcomed in the shooter, Dylann Roof, as he sat with them for up to an hour. They extended love and acceptance. How many of us have been in that similar place? Attending a Bible study, gathering with others on a Wednesday night at church, uniting our hearts and minds in prayer.
Last Friday – just two days after the shooting – many of the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church welcomed Dylann Roof in again, this time into forgiveness. The families of the victims were given the opportunity to address the shooter during his bond hearing. As a number of the relatives looked him in the eye through a television screen, they ushered him into grace. They invited him into love. They showed forgiveness in the face of incredible pain and loss.
The pain cannot be erased. The tragedy cannot be undone. The lives taken cannot be returned. The just anger and horror over the heinous crimes of Dylann Roof cannot – and should not — diminish. But what we saw in that courtroom was the very moment when faith becomes more than words. One by one, family members spoke, their voices breaking as they were overcome with grief. “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love, and their legacies will live in love,” said Alana Simmons, granddaughter of one of the victims.
In that instant, we witnessed a miracle. The miraculous nature of their responses in love and faith speaks louder and stronger than the evil committed against those innocent lives ever could. The vicious hatred and violence of the shooter sought to divide. But the community in Charleston is coming together– black and white, Republican and Democrat – uniting in faith, forgiveness, and love.
Forgiveness of that magnitude takes courage –the kind of courage upon which a nation survives. There are thousands who seek to destroy our country and, as a result, we bear heartache as a nation. We feel it when bombs murder and maim innocent crowds on our city streets, when towers fall, when school children’s lives are cut tragically short. The situations are different, but the pain of searing loss is the same. We bear that heartache as a nation.
We live with the scars of those tragedies. In times of need, it is powerful to see how America rallies together, regardless of political affiliations, religious beliefs, socioeconomic levels, or race. It’s one of the most incredible things about this country we call home. It’s what makes us great. Evil seeks to divide, but time and again, our response unites us. There is no source of strength greater than that of our communities, our faith, our people, our prayers, and the bond that forms when we stand shoulder to shoulder, refusing to let tragedy triumph or divide us. Even when evil tries to tear directly at those very fibers in our nation’s tapestry, together, we unite and we grow stronger. We are ‘Boston Strong;’ we are ‘Oklahoma City Strong;’ we are ‘New York City Strong;’ we are ‘Charleston Strong.’ We are America strong.
Alana Simmons was right about the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Their legacies will live in love. Let us grab hold of their faith – one that is grounded in love and compassion – and replicate it across our country and in our communities. America will continue to face challenging times ahead, but we need not look to the future with fear. Because when we unite, we prevail.
Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s Fourth District in Congress.