Even the most cynical atheist had to have been in awe as the family members of the murdered faithful rose one after another in the Charleston courtroom and proved the power of their own faith in the face of crushing loss.
“I forgive you,” Nadine Collier said through tears to the accused killer of her mother, Ethel Lance. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul.”
She managed to keep on, “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you and I forgive you.”
Next came Anthony Thompson, husband of Myra Thompson. He began by addressing the court rather than his wife’s accused killer.
“I would just like him to know that, to say the same thing that was just said: I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent.”
The husband then spoke directly to Dylann Roof, who was watching and listening via a video connection from jail.
“Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most—Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways.”
Thompson’s wife was not yet buried and he was actually offering Roof a way to salvation.
“So no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”
The next to speak was Felicia Sanders, mother of a magical young man named Tywanza Sanders.
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with welcome arms,” she said to the killer.
Roof has reportedly told police that the group was so welcoming and manifestly decent that he nearly decided to abandon his murderous plan.
But that would have meant giving up the hate that filled the hollowness of being born of a fleeting reunion between his parents three years after their divorce and of getting no further in high school than the ninth grade, but wearing a jacket with an “Academic All Stars” patch rightfully worn only by seniors in the top 10 percent. He had compensated for that false claim by sewing two other patches on the jacket, flags of apartheid-era Rhodesia and South Africa, symbols for those seeking another kind of supposed supremacy.
And his older sister, Amber, was to be married on Sunday. To have just left the Emanuel A.M.E. Church on Wednesday night would have meant going to the wedding at the end of the week as a rank loser from a fractured family who could rightly declare himself supreme in nothing at all.
Even so, Roof seems to have understood in his moments of indecision that these warmly devout people of the Bible study group were putting the lie to his racism. He may have sensed that the faith filling their lives might also fill his own.
After an hour, just as he was apparently losing his resolve and his hate was slipping away, Root seized it anew. He allegedly produced the Glock .45 automatic that he is reported to have purchased with birthday money from his father.
That was when Tywanza Sanders is said to have told him, “You don’t have to do this.”
Roof is said to have replied as if he were also trying to convince himself. He was not some loser. He was a champion of the white race about to start a race war.
“I have to do it,” he reportedly cried out.
His next words were the language of white supremacists.
“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Sanders could have sought to flee. He instead placed himself between the gun and his aunt. He was killed and now his mother stood in the courtroom, addressing the killer.
“You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know,” she told him. “Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero.”
She repeated, “Tywanza was my hero.”
Yet, instead of cursing Roof, she then said this:
“May God have mercy on you.”
She was followed by Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons.
“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 lived in love and their legacies will live in love,” she told Root.
She was speaking absolute truth.
“So hate won’t win,” she went on. “And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”
Finally, there was Bethane Middleton-Brown, sister of DePayne Middleton Doctor.
“That was my sister, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win,” she said.
Where so many of us see grief as a justification for righteous retribution, Middleton-Brown was resolutely humble in her effort to overcome what she was feeling even as she was feeling it.
“For me, I’m a work in progress,” she said. “And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family, is she taught me that we are the family that love built.”
She was talking about all the bullets had not been able to kill, about a family that was surviving even this, about love that was saving her in her grief.
“We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive,” she told Root. “I pray to God for your soul.”
Nobody from the family of the slain pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, rose to speak, but everything the others had said was suffused with the beliefs that he had long taught and shared.
Roof kept his eyes lowered, surely hearing the dead speak along with the living. He must have felt the weakness of evil in the face of such good.
Even atheists had to see divinity in these families built by love. God was there in that courtroom if He has ever been anywhere.