In some ways, I find it hard to believe it’s been five years since the Charleston church shooting. But somehow, it’s still too recent a tragedy.
I will always remember where I was when I first learned about the Charleston church shooting.
It was June 17, 2015. I was sitting on a plane on the Tarmac in Mississippi. I’d been there for a week of meetings and I felt miserable. I managed to develop a terrible cold I worried might become bronchitis.
I had one single thing on my mind: making it to Columbia’s airport, then going to my parents’ home where they were keeping my dog. I’d get there and go straight to bed. Maybe a good night’s sleep would make me feel better. I’d call in sick that next day if I had to.
It’s a relatively short flight from Mobile to Atlanta. Before we took off, I dutifully turned off my phone. By the time we arrived in Atlanta, I was all the more ready for that good night’s sleep.
But as I waited to get off one plane for a connecting flight, I turned my phone back on.
There were lots of noises. I had app alerts, text messages and a voicemail from my nightside producer. I called and he said there were reports of a possible shooting at a church in downtown Charleston. But I couldn’t talk long because I had to get to my next flight. But I promised I’d call back when we landed in Columbia.
By then, it was as horrible as anyone could imagine: eight people had been killed at the church and paramedics rushed a ninth to the hospital where it was rumored he had died as well.
Needless to say, I rushed from Columbia to Charleston as quickly as I could. The whole time, I hoped with all my heart that these reports would turn out to be false.
Something so terrible, after all, couldn’t be true.
Bad things happen to good people.
We all know that. Sometimes we like to pretend we don’t. But deep down, we all know it’s true.
In this case, a church Bible study welcomed a stranger among them. That stranger turned out to be a white supremacist who opened fire on them during the concluding prayer. When the shots had stopped, nine of the church members, including the senior pastor, had been gunned down.
It was bad enough to think that someone could just kill nine people.
It was worse to think that someone welcomed into a church could do so.
How could it happen? Yes, it was a terrible thing that happened to people who didn’t deserve it.
Somehow, we’re supposed to accept that there is evil in the world and that things like this just happen.
I still haven’t figured out how to accept such a notion.
That week was a blur.
Things happened so quickly that it’s hard to remember the exact timeline without going back and looking at notes.
I remember moments.
I remember a news conference the next day in which the arrest of the gunman was announced. At that same news conference, I remember then-Gov. Nikki Haley choking up as she said, “We woke up today and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken.”
There were the sounds of family members telling the gunman at his initial court appearance that they forgave him. How could you possibly forgive someone for something so heinous? Yet they reminded us that the Christian faith is about love and forgiveness. They looked into the face of hate and responded with love.
I remember seeing all of the flowers, stuffed animals and balloons mourners left outside the church.
Days later, I drove to downtown Charleston to try to see the makeshift memorials in person. So many people packed into the area that I couldn’t find a parking place!
I recall prayer vigils, shows of unity, blacks and whites embracing, crying together, mourning together.
And I remember President Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor.
You could feel a sense that this wasn’t going to rip people apart but bring them together.
In a sense, it felt like a miracle…one bourn out of a most unimaginable tragedy that never should have happened.
I pray that we never forget the response Charleston gave.
And I pray we’ll never need another event like that to be reminded of it.