‘I forgive you’

Nadine Collier (in the green dress), the youngest daughter of shooting victim Ethel Lance, addressed the media after speaking about forgiveness at a bond hearing for accused killer Dylann Roof.

It lasts 13 minutes and 25 seconds.

The small courtroom is packed with families about to get their first glimpse of Dylann Roof, the young man accused of killing nine of their loved ones in hopes of starting a race war.

They expect him to be the story here, two days after the June 17 massacre at Emanuel AME Church’s Bible study in Charleston.

Instead, they will eclipse him.

With national media crammed in to watch, Roof appears on a TV monitor, a slim shackled man with greasy blond hair, dressed in a striped jail jumpsuit. Officers flank his sides.

The magistrate, a middle-age white man with silvery hair, peers over his glasses at the black family members before him. Glancing at a list of nine names on a sheet of paper, he asks if any of the victims’ family members would like to speak, not knowing the gate he was opening.

Nadine Collier, who lost her mother, Ethel Lance, in the shooting, stands and shuffles through the crowd to speak the first, tone-setting words:

“I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you! You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again.”

She continues, her voice husky, saturated with sorrow.

“But God forgive you, and I forgive you.”

Collier’s strong voice quivers as she unknowingly launches a storyline of forgiveness that will resonate across the globe in the hours, weeks and months to come.

But the narrative also will paint a simplistic picture of complex emotions and family dynamics. Yes, forgiveness and grace are real. But anger and grief also divide loved ones and challenge the best intentions of those hurting most.

As the families leave the courtroom and return to their shattered lives, they are unaware that these 13 minutes will turn their pain into a nation’s struggle, that it would make people everywhere pause to ask: Could I forgive?

•••

Lance’s eldest daughter, the Rev. Sharon Risher, wasn’t at the bond hearing. An AME minister, she works as a trauma chaplain at a large Dallas hospital. Her days deal in death amid those who have just learned their loved ones have been snatched away forever, often violently.

If she’d known about the bond hearing, Risher would have gone and spoken. “But it wouldn’t have been what they wanted to hear,” she said.

What would Risher have said?

“Forgiveness is a process, and I’m not there. One day, I hope to be able to forgive you. My biggest hope is that you find Jesus there in your cell.”

Instead, so much talk of forgiveness since the bond hearing only makes it harder for loved ones such as Risher to grieve — to be angry and to hurt without feeling somehow wrong.

“I haven’t forgiven this little boy yet,” Risher said. “Real life is messy. You can’t whitewash it.”

Lance’s middle daughter, Esther, didn’t go to the bond hearing either. Nor would she have spoken of forgiveness.

“Right now it won’t be pretty,” she told the prosecutor that day.

“I can’t say 48 hours after you killed my mother that I forgive you. I can’t say that,” Esther Lance said recently. “You hurt me. You took my mama from me, and I’m supposed to forgive you? I’m sorry, I don’t.”

She would have told Roof that first she needs to heal herself.

“I just got hate for him right now,” she admitted.

But Esther Lance will speak. She’ll do so during the sentencing at Roof’s trial, when it’s his life at stake, in her time and not his.

•••

Myra Thompson’s husband had not planned to attend Roof’s bond hearing. After 27 years working for probation and parole, Anthony Thompson knows these proceedings usually aren’t a big deal.

But their children wanted to go.

As they drove toward the detention center courtroom, he warned: “We’re not going to say anything. Nothing.”

They sat together. But as Thompson hung his head, “Bam!” He felt God speak to him, telling him what to say.

A local Reformed Episcopal minister, he is an obedient man when it comes to God. So when his 59-year-old wife’s name rang out, he rose. Their children peered at him.

“I’ll tell you later,” he whispered.

“Your name, sir?” the magistrate asked.

“Anthony Thompson.”

Not Rev. Thompson, which he is, just Anthony Thompson, the husband and not the preacher. His voice emerged soft but poised. He echoed Collier’s words of forgiveness. But then he continued, speaking directly to the pale, motionless man on the television screen:

“We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it, can change your ways.”

Thompson stared at Roof, trying to grab the accused killer’s eye. For a quick second, he caught it.

Today, the pastor prays for inmates at the jail where his work once took him. He includes Roof among those he knows by name. “I ask God to forgive him every night.”

God wanted him at that bond hearing so he could speak those words of repentance and forgiveness. Of that, he is certain.

•••

Listening at the bond hearing didn’t bring about a similar epiphany for Myra’s son, Kevin Singleton. Several months after her death, he grapples with grief by preserving her memory. He’s still working on forgiveness.

“The tongue is strong. You’re trying to speak into forgiveness,” said Singleton, who found Christ while growing up at Emanuel AME. “But in your heart, of course you still hold grudges and grievances.”

The Charlotte resident is working toward the higher goal, however, through Passion to Forgive, a nonprofit he created in his mother’s memory. Its first stop: Charleston.

One day last week he stood in the media center of his old elementary school, James Simons on King Street. Behind him waited new kids’ bikes, Hot Wheel tracks and Barbies as a group of kids filed in.

“Whoa!”

“Cool!”

Singleton grinned, arm around his eighth-grade son, Kaleb.

Principal Quenetta White introduced them. “How many of you heard about the Emanuel Nine?”

A few hands poked up.

“His mom is one of the victims, and he’s taking the tragedy and turning it into triumph,” the principal grinned.

The kids, from 3 to 11, eyeballed the toys with delight.

The Rev. Thompson stood quietly to the side, thinking of his wife. “She would’ve loved this. She would have done the same thing,” he said.

Which is the point. Myra used to take Kaleb to do community service. He was supposed to be with her in Charleston on June 17 until she needed to switch the date of his visit.

When they walked out of the school, Singleton paused, then hugged his stepfather. It hadn’t been easy since Myra’s death. They’re left to build a new relationship in the void.

“I follow your lead, man. I follow your lead,” Singleton said softly.

Thompson answered: “I’m proud of you.”

•••

Felicia Sanders also wasn’t planning to speak at the bond hearing. Just the day before, she had washed her dead son’s blood from her skin.

But sitting in court that day, sharing anguish with her lifelong church family, the mother of four changed her mind. She still isn’t sure why, although she knew she didn’t want violence to erupt in Charleston. The only one here who witnessed the rampage at Emanuel AME, she didn’t want anyone else to lose a child.

So when the magistrate called her 26-year-old son’s name, she rose to speak.

“You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know,” she said. “Every fiber in my body hurts, and I never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero.

“As we say in Bible study: ‘We enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.’”

Her voice broke with agony. Yet, she sounded warm and strong, as Sanders remained as she returned to her seat.

The magistrate continued down a list of the nine dead to the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.

The retired pastor’s son, Dan Simmons Jr., sat up front with his daughter. They live in Virginia and didn’t share deep Emanuel roots with the others. But they did share their faith.

His daughter, Alana, turned to him: “You want to go speak?”

“You go,” he whispered. “Speak from your heart, and God will help you choose your words.”

Alana, a beautiful 26-year-old, rose and walked toward the microphone.

“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof — everyone’s plea for your soul — is proof that they — they — lived and loved, and their legacies will live and love. So hate won’t win.”

•••

Dan Simmons Jr. listened, heart filling with joy at his daughter’s words.

“My dad would want that,” he recalled recently. “He was a man who preached love and spoke love.”

His father would have said that love and forgiveness are God’s commands, and here was his granddaughter speaking of them.

“When you forgive something, you release all of that hurt and pain,” Dan Simmons said. “No one is born to hate. No one is born a murderer. Those things are taught, and somewhere along the line Dylann Roof learned to hate.”

But they would not teach that.

To preserve the 74-year-old’s legacy, the Simmons family has launched the nonprofit Hate Won’t Win Movement to unite society and bridge differences. Where others see tragedy, Dan Simmons sees God at work. Roof came to an anointed place to kill. Instead, he has inspired a movement.

“That young man went to the wrong church in the wrong city. God chose the right place and the right people,” Dan Simmons said.

•••

Bethane Middleton-Brown heard people talking to her in the courtroom that day, but they sounded like a whir of voices, as if she was on a merry-go-round. However, she felt the graceful spirit of her sister, the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, within her as she walked up to speak about her loss.

She didn’t speak of forgiveness. She did admit to anger.

“But one thing DePayne has always joined in our family with is she taught me that we are the family that love built!”

Her voice rose, jabbing at Roof’s image, still and emotionless staring back from the TV screen.

“We have no room for hate!” she continued. “So we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul, and I also thank God that I won’t be around when your judgment day come with him. May God bless you.”

Middleton-Brown and her voice departed with dignity.

Looking back six months later, the psychotherapist is glad she spoke of love, which she felt deeply, and not forgiveness, which will come.

Since the massacre, her sister’s four children have moved in with Middleton-Brown and her husband. They’re now a family of seven children, ages 11 to 23.

Doctor’s 50th birthday would have been Dec. 15, just before the massacre’s six-month anniversary.

They all visited her grave to pray and sing.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 843-937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerry Hawes.