“I Forgive You”: How Charleston Kept It Together

Charleston, SC is a city known for many things. It’s been voted the #1 city in the U.S.–for the past four years. Charleston’s historic downtown and local beaches attract hordes of tourists during the summer months. It is nicknamed the “Holy City,” for the numerous church steeples that mark its historic skyline. But this week, a young man was welcomed into one of those historic churches, only to open fire on its members, brutally murdering nine people–all because of their race.

I first heard about the Charleston shooting while I was watching TV Wednesday evening. I opened my Twitter feed about 10pm and saw literally hundreds of tweets about the event. Typically, I’d love to see Charleston trending…but not for this reason. I stayed up for hours waiting to hear more about what had happened, but eventually succumbed to the need for sleep. I’ve been following along closely in the news since then, and there has been no shortage of media coverage.

(In case you’ve missed it: There’s an excellent–but horrific–description of the sequence of events here. There’s a list of the victims here. What’s not made the news quite so much is the 5-year-old child that was instructed to play dead and shielded by her grandmother while the two were spattered with the blood of their fellow worshipers.)

The entire nation has been reeling from this event for the past 3 days, reawakening heated debates that never seem to go fully dormant. It has brought up (yet again) the issues of race that have plagued our society since our nation’s inception. There have been calls for increased gun control measures to reduce gun violence. We’ve seen renewed efforts to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House–because, while it may represent Southern heritage for some, it serves an a symbol of hate and oppression for so many others.

This event has hit me personally–not just because of its unspeakably tragic nature, but because it happened in a city that I call “home.” My wife and I spent out first several years of marriage in Charleston. Our two children were born there, and many of our friends live there still. We have so many wonderful memories burned into our minds by the heat of the Charleston sun. It hurts deeply to see such a fantastic community hit so hard by a hateful act of violence. But I have never been more proud of this town.

The man (if you can call him that) who murdered these innocent people wanted to start a war. But he didn’t get what he wanted. Instead of driving a wedge between people of different races, he brought them closer together. The response to his massacre wasn’t one of hate and division, but of love and unity. Area churches, regardless of their predominant racial makeup, have come together to support the families of these victims. Social media has been flooded with hashtags like #PrayforCharleston and #CharlestonStrong, as the citizens of this town refuse respond to hate with hate. Tomorrow evening, a “unity chain” of thousands of people will stretch across the iconic Ravenel Bridge stretching across the Cooper River, as people of all races link arms in a display of solidarity.

But by far the most inspiring response has come from the families of the victims. Chris Singleton, a student and baseball player at Charleston Southern University, whose mother was killed Wednesday night, held a press conference in which he displayed an astonishing level of maturity and composure. And when given the opportunity to confront the murderer at his bond hearing, the victims’ family members had little to say aside from “I forgive you,” conveying their prayers that he would seek forgiveness from God as well (video here). Instead of being driven apart, people of all races are coming together in Charleston–in love, unity, faith, hope, and forgiveness. It’s truly inspiring.

For many of you, this event will (if it hasn’t already) lead to difficult conversations with your kids. Typically, the best way to approach these issues is with honest but age-appropriate explanations, followed by the reassurance that you will keep them safe. And never stop teaching them the importance of showing love, respect, and forgiveness to others–regardless of race or other differences. As the people of Charleston have shown, this is the stuff that keeps communities together.