GRACE WILL LEAD US HOME: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness. By Jennifer Berry Hawes. St. Martin's Press. 320 pages. $28.99.
Some books are hard to put down. This one was not. So I did. Over and over again. Walking away because, as Gwendolyn Brooks said in her poem of love and loss, the story was “overmuch, too much to bear.” Even four years later.
I had this visceral reaction to Jennifer Berry Hawes’ book, “Grace Will Lead Us Home,” as someone who exists squarely on the margins of, but nevertheless remains deeply touched by the events in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Charleston is my spiritual home. It is where part of my family is from and remains, in the Simmonses, Singletons and other common surnames of the area. Indeed, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, one of the nine worshipers murdered at Mother Emanuel, was a distant relative. Charleston is not where I was born, but I got there as fast as I could. And I continue to return as often as I can.
The AME Church, too, is my spiritual home. I come from a line of AME preachers, graduates of the church-run Allen University, and long-faithful worshippers. As a young boy sitting beside my mother while she played the organ during the Sunday service at New Bethel AME in the Midlands, my earliest memories were of looking out into the congregation, not to the pulpit. I grappled with the expectation among some of my elders that I someday would take my place in the pulpit in the church my family helped to found or to possibly to even higher heights within the AME Church organization.
I was an active participant in the Young People’s Division, YPD, where I occasionally encountered a slightly younger boy who was hot on my heels in speaking contests and other displays of preacherly prowess. Eventually, due to his superior talent and deeper faith, he overtook me and never looked back.
That young man was Clementa Pinckney. We never knew each other well, but I was constantly being set up with him as a well-matched friend and collaborator, long into adulthood. “You should meet Clementa Pinckney,” people who knew us both often suggested. We exchanged a few emails and phone calls here and there, but the true connection never happened. Clem was who I was supposed to be, but he was far better at it. For me, it was a profound loss. To find his number still in my phone gives me chills. Overmuch, too much to bear.
So, if from this slight remove, the events Hawes chronicles had this effect on me, I can only imagine how her book will impact the readers of this piece who knew the victims, who have consoled the survivors, and who have moved through and continue to grapple with this act of terrorism. As she suggests, it is at its heart a story of grace. Not the cheap grace that got oversimplified and romanticized by the national media, but the hard-won, tortured internal path to extending forgiveness, whether it was warranted or not. And regardless of whether it was sought.
Hawes leads us along the path to salvation in grim but necessary detail. At times, the book reads like the best of true crime stories. She takes us into the lives of the members of Emanuel and their pastor, ever balancing the demands of the sacred and the secular, both within the church’s political hierarchy and in their lives in the world. Each contained within them something of the divine, yet they all exhibited various human frailties that made them mindful of the need to constantly tend to the feeding of their souls and those of others.
In “Grace Will Lead Us Home,” Hawes delivers a rich and powerful account of the events, actors and consequences of the Mother Emanuel tragedy, drawing upon her considerable talents as a decorated investigative journalist with an impressive ability to convey the inner workings of a religious organization. She deftly conveys the struggles of the survivors and families of those murdered at Mother Emanuel and draws a nuanced portrait of the forgiveness narrative. Anyone looking to better understand the aftermath of the attack on Mother Emanuel beyond the facile reconciliation storyline in the national media would benefit from this account.
Still, something was not fully present in Hawes’s masterful storytelling that would have made it even more so. As much as this is a story about grace and forgiveness, it also is a story of redemption. And like grace, this redemption is neither cheap nor easy. It is redemption of a historical nature that, in many ways, explains how a wraith like Dylann Roof could emerge during what some described as a post-racial era. Lingering in the background of this story is a reckoning with redemption as a 19th-century moment in South Carolina that has now found renewed vigor in the 21st.
Redemption as a means of racial retribution remains the dominant narrative informing South Carolina’s governing arrangements and politics. It was born of the period following Reconstruction when White “Red Shirts,” led by Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton III, sought to “redeem” the Lost Cause by reinstituting a racial caste system upon the removal of federal forces from the state. With Redemption came a post-hoc demonization and misrepresentation of the period of Reconstruction, as well as the promulgation of a new state constitution, still in effect today, intended to entrench white political rule. It was but an early effort to “Make South Carolina Great Again.” In one among many examples of the area’s enduring contradictions, the statue of Mother Emanuel’s heretofore most famous congregant, Denmark Vesey, stands in a park named for Gen. Hampton.
The historical parallels between Redemption and our current moment bear closer scrutiny. Economic and class dislocation undoubtedly were strong motivators for Trump supporters, particularly those who had voted for Barack Obama in either of the previous two elections. So, too, was race, as Hawes depicts in her quote from the racist website Stormfront, “(Whites) see how Blacks are gloating over Obama’s victory. These Whites want a strong opposite reaction to counter it.” Sentiments such as these, rooted in a need to even the racial score, were primary motivators for Roof’s heinous acts.
A more complex discussion of forgiveness and redemption also would have shed additional light on figures like former Gov. Nikki Haley, who took the bold step of using her bully pulpit to call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds. As a weak governor in what structurally is essentially a parliamentary state — a vestige of Redemption — there was little Haley could do beyond cajoling and shaming a legislature populated by many who had no incentive to work with her. That Rev. Pinckney also was State Sen. Pinckney may well have carried more weight with legislators who were more intent on honoring one of their own than heeding the call from Haley’s press conference.
Further, while Hawes chronicles the childhood experiences that may have prepared Haley for her moment of conscience, little is shared about Haley’s conscious decision to launch her political career in overwhelmingly white, conservative Republican Lexington, where the town seal bears the Confederate flag to this day. Haley’s fleeting focus on the hard work of reconciliation, of grace and forgiveness, is further called into question by her decision to join the administration of a modern-day redeemer, whose entire political reason for being is to turn back the clock, including his eight-year turn as demagogic stalking horse during the entirety of the Obama administration.
This silence on the other aspects of Haley’s character is deafening and worthy of attention not only to portray her as a person in full, but also as someone who represents the shallow commitment to true reconciliation, a source of ongoing distrust among African Americans.
Nevertheless, this is a problem largely stemming from how carefully and thoughtfully Hawes interweaves the other major elements of this narrative. She centers grace as the hard-won lesson of the tragedy of Mother Emanuel. The families who lost so much on that early-summer Wednesday evening four years ago were forced to confront the complexity of receiving and extending grace to someone who showed no remorse at all. Hawes relates early in the book, “He’d selected a place that drew good people, the kind whose murders would garner notice and outrage.”
As difficult as it was to both give and display grace in their moments of intense grief, everything about the families at Mother Emanuel had prepared them for that moment, just as so many African Americans have similarly steeled themselves. What remains unanswered is when Charleston, our state, and the rest of America will directly confront the persistent, wholly unwarranted large and small acts of racial malevolence that make forgiveness necessary.