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The Power of Forgiveness
Charleston church shooting survivors share their stories
Three people affected by the Charleston church shooting visited the university to tell their individual experiences about that night, and how they’ve learned to overcome their grief through forgiveness on Friday, Sept. 7.
It’s been three years since the shooting occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, where Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, killed nine people during a prayer service inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“I met Satan face to face, but the divine stepped in the room and granted me grace,” Sheppard said.
Alongside Sheppard was Rose Simmons, who lost her father, Dr. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr. in the attack and Rev. Anthony Thompson, who lost his wife Myra Thompson.
McKenzie Lancaster, a senior psychology major, is practicing Christianity. Lancaster knew she needed to attend the event to hear from people who have stayed true to their faith during such a challenging time.
“I know that I’m always trying to learn more and broaden my faith, so this event has been really impactful for me because it speaks to the level of how much their faith really means to them,” Lancaster said. “It goes beyond following the rules in the Bible, just doing something out of fear of a place like Hell, and really they incorporate it into their everyday lives and speak to God like he’s a friend. So, it’s just amazing to see that side of them.”
Sheppard led the room in prayer before telling her story about what happened to her during the attack. “June 17 was like any other day,” Sheppard said, talking about how she attended a meeting at the church earlier that evening and even spoke to Thompson’s wife that day.
Sheppard said that Roof seemed to just want to sit in during their prayer service, but suddenly he stood up and took fire on the attendees of the church.
Sheppard remembered hiding under a table praying whilst believing that she was going to die, when Roof eventually approached her asking if he had shot her yet. When she responded no, he replied, “I’m not going to shoot you. I’m going to leave you to tell the story.”
“Some say the killer spared my life. I don’t accept that,” Sheppard said. “He didn’t let me live. God let me live.”
It wasn’t easy to forgive Roof for his actions at first, according to Sheppard. However, she spoke of something in the Bible that helped her gain forgiveness that said, if you want forgiveness for yourself, you have to forgive others.
“Now after three years traveling and speaking across America, I have finally found my voice to assure that we never forget the largest race mass murder in our time,” Sheppard said. “I am a survivor with a divine mission to turn my pain into action.”
Simmons told her story after Sheppard, saying that she heard of the shooting while in prison for being associated with a business partner who improperly distributed grant money.
“I was watching television and I saw where this young white boy walked into a church and brutally murdered nine people. In that moment, I began to pray for that young man,” Simmons said. “My thoughts were, ‘Lord, for someone to do that, they don’t know you. They don’t understand the love and forgiveness that you offer.’”
Shortly after seeing the news story, Simmons was called into an office and told that her father was one of the nine victims of the massacre. Knowing then that her father was killed by the shooter she just prayed for, Simmons said she still had no ill thoughts about him.
“I forgave this young man before I even knew that my father was one of those people. When I found out otherwise, it didn’t change forgiveness in my heart,” Simmons said. “We all have experienced people and things in our lives where we don’t want to forgive and if you could just imagine with me for a minute: I was in prison with my partner, I ate with her everyday, we worshipped everyday. Forgiveness started with me long before Dylann.”
Unlike Simmons, who quickly forgave Roof for what he did, Thompson said it took a long time for him to do the same thing. Thompson’s wife was a newly ordained minister and was conducting her first Bible study on the night of the shooting. When Thompson discovered that she was killed, he struggled finding a purpose in his life without her. It wasn’t until Thompson attended Roof’s trial with his children that he was motivated to find his inner peace.
Thompson didn’t originally intend to say anything when he was granted the opportunity to speak to Roof in the courtroom, but Thompson explained to the audience, “God came (to me) and said, ‘Get up. I have something to say.’”
Thompson expressed his feelings to Roof, describing the moment as suddenly becoming private. In Thompson’s eyes, there was no one else in that room except himself and Roof.
“I forgive you. My family forgives you, but I want you to take this opportunity to repent, confess, give your life to the ones that means most to you, Christ, because you are in a lot of trouble right now,” Thompson said to Roof. “I don’t know what is going to happen to you, but whatever happens to you, if you do that, you’re going to be alright.”
Thompson said that he now gained peace since that day and that Roof is no longer consuming his life.
“My body was literally shaking before I could get back to my seat and I could feel things leaving my body,” Thompson said. “I know I was being relieved of something, and it was the anger and the hate and the way I was feeling my whole life. God was taking it all away.”
Thompson said that he will be leaving Quinnipiac University with more blessings than what he came in with because of meeting the people who attended the event. He also mentioned that this is the first event where he collaborated with Sheppard and Simmons by speaking on all of their experiences in the same room.
“It put a whole different light for how I was feeling, especially about my wife and what was going on in there and also humbles me to hear their relationship that they have with the Lord,” Thompson said. “It showed that there’s a commonality because I never saw it before.”
Simmons agreed that working together helped understand what each person went through to an even larger degree.
“I think it’s important that we go out as one unit and share our stories and our triumphs and even some of our weaknesses too to show the world that we are human as well,” Simmons said. “We believe that small things done with great force can change a generation.”
Elizabeth Pensabene, graduate student in the physician assistant program said the topic of forgiveness is really important and she sometimes finds it difficult to forgive during hard times. However, she received a valuable lesson from this event.
“Something that they said tonight was that if you don’t forgive someone, you really are just throwing darts at yourself,” Pensabene said. “The gift of forgiveness isn’t for anyone else but yourself, and when you hold onto hate you are hurting yourself more than that person. Forgiveness is really God’s gift for you.”