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Documentary About Charleston Church Shooting Explores Forgiveness


The Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., is one of the oldest black congregations in the South. Four years ago today, people gathered there for Bible study, and they welcomed a stranger who was a white supremacist. He opened fire during the closing prayer, killing nine people. A new documentary titled "Emanuel" tells the stories of those who were killed, including 59-year-old Myra Thompson, who was training to become a minister. Her husband, Reverend Anthony Thompson, spoke with Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: How did you and Myra first meet?

ANTHONY THOMPSON: Well, she was on her way to Charleston, S.C., one morning. However, she missed her bus. And I was coming through the campus. And I said, well, I'm on my way to Charleston. And make a long story short, I offered her a ride home. After that, I just couldn't leave her alone.


THOMPSON: She just told me what she expected out of life, and everything was no-nonsense. I never heard that from a woman before. I mean, I was like - she put the fear of God in me.


THOMPSON: Yes, it did.

MARTIN: Can you take me back to that day, the last day? When did you first hear that a shooting had happened at the church?

THOMPSON: Well, my phone rang. It was a member of Emanuel AME Church. She said, Reverend Thompson, you need to go to the church because there's shooting going on. I was, like, oh, my God. I dropped my phone; I ran out the house, got in my car. And in five minutes, I was downtown because we lived downtown. Police officer had the streets blocked off. And he told me - said, well, everybody had been taken out of the church, and they're over at the hotel, which is adjacent to the church on Calhoun Street.

So I drove down. I walk in the door. And I saw Felicia Sanders and her granddaughter, two survivors - they were hugging each other, crying. They didn't see me. Then when I turned around to go back out of the door, Felicia Sanders looked at me. And she said, Reverend Thompson, Myra's gone. And I said, oh, well, she'll be back. I'll just wait here until she comes back. She said, no, she's gone.

I mean, I just couldn't believe it. I was, like, no, she got to be kidding. And finally, it kicked in. And I just lost it. I fell down on the pavement on Calhoun Street. I mean, oh, Jesus. And I just cried. I mean, I cried like a baby. First time in my life that I ever lost control. I didn't know what to do. I kept saying, I don't know what to do.

You know, for me, all purpose in life was gone - just gone. And after a while, I heard a voice say, get up. And then I looked around. Nobody was really looking at me. And I heard a voice again - get up. And I'm, like, you've got to be kidding. This is God. Like, why are you talking to me like that? You know, it wasn't, like - be of good cheer. Fear not. This is the Lord. He was, like, get up.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: And I'm, like, OK. This, I don't need. And he just kept at it. Like, all I could hear was, OK, well, this is what I want you to preach on Sunday. And he gave me a scripture, St. Luke 17 - so watch yourself but forgive.

MARTIN: In the documentary, there is this overwhelming moment where the judge has invited the families of the victims to come and address the shooter at this bond hearing. And instead of anger - instead of even sadness, the overwhelming message is of forgiveness.


THOMPSON: You know, I forgive you. My family forgives you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent - repent, confess, give your life to the one that is the most - Christ.

As soon as I got through saying that, I was free. I mean, I was light as a feather. I mean, I felt a peace. I mean, everything had gone. And I realized that he freed me. He freed me from the pain that I was feeling, from the anger I felt. He freed me from the sadness I had in my heart. I mean, he just took everything away. I mean, it just brought me to tears. I just - I don't know. He just came and took over. Oh, my God. And I feel that same peace right now today. It's not - it hasn't gone. It's still with me. And it enabled me to move forward in my life.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about that because it was such a statement, such an illustration of grace when you when the other family members stood up there and forgave the person who took the lives of your loved ones. But there were people in Charleston who - they saw that and felt that by forgiving this shooter, you had freed him from accountability in some way - that you had given the broader country an easy way to say, these things happen - the only way to deal with it isn't to change gun laws or take on racism at the root cause. It's just to forgive and move on. What do you say to that?

THOMPSON: I've told people that the forgiveness is not for the perpetrator or the offender. Forgiveness is for the victim. I didn't let Dylann off the hook. Dylann is in prison, but I'm free. And it changed Charleston.

MARTIN: How so?

THOMPSON: You know, where there was this undertone of racism that people - we just didn't talk about. But we came together, you know, as one people. The Confederate flag came down when nobody was talking about the flag. It's just - forgiveness just opened everybody's minds up and started to heal our city. There's a lot going on since that day. You know, God took this tragedy and brought the good. And it all came from acts of forgiveness.

MARTIN: Reverend Anthony Thompson, thank you so much for talking with us.

THOMPSON: You're welcome. And thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUSHED'S "SILENT SCREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.