It lasts 13 minutes and 25 seconds.
The small courtroom is packed with families about to get their first glimpse of Dylann Roof, the young man accused of killing nine of their loved ones in hopes of starting a race war.
They expect him to be the story here, two days after the June 17 massacre at Emanuel AME Church’s Bible study in Charleston.
Instead, they will eclipse him.
With national media crammed in to watch, Roof appears on a TV monitor, a slim shackled man with greasy blond hair, dressed in a striped jail jumpsuit. Officers flank his sides.
The magistrate, a middle-age white man with silvery hair, peers over his glasses at the black family members before him. Glancing at a list of nine names on a sheet of paper, he asks if any of the victims’ family members would like to speak, not knowing the gate he was opening.
Nadine Collier, who lost her mother, Ethel Lance, in the shooting, stands and shuffles through the crowd to speak the first, tone-setting words:
“I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you! You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again.”
She continues, her voice husky, saturated with sorrow.
“But God forgive you, and I forgive you.”
Collier’s strong voice quivers as she unknowingly launches a storyline of forgiveness that will resonate across the globe in the hours, weeks and months to come.
But the narrative also will paint a simplistic picture of complex emotions and family dynamics. Yes, forgiveness and grace are real. But anger and grief also divide loved ones and challenge the best intentions of those hurting most.
As the families leave the courtroom and return to their shattered lives, they are unaware that these 13 minutes will turn their pain into a nation’s struggle, that it would make people everywhere pause to ask: Could I forgive?
Lance’s eldest daughter, the Rev. Sharon Risher, wasn’t at the bond hearing. An AME minister, she works as a trauma chaplain at a large Dallas hospital. Her days deal in death amid those who have just learned their loved ones have been snatched away forever, often violently.
If she’d known about the bond hearing, Risher would have gone and spoken. “But it wouldn’t have been what they wanted to hear,” she said.
What would Risher have said?
“Forgiveness is a process, and I’m not there. One day, I hope to be able to forgive you. My biggest hope is that you find Jesus there in your cell.”
Instead, so much talk of forgiveness since the bond hearing only makes it harder for loved ones such as Risher to grieve — to be angry and to hurt without feeling somehow wrong.
“I haven’t forgiven this little boy yet,” Risher said. “Real life is messy. You can’t whitewash it.”
Lance’s middle daughter, Esther, didn’t go to the bond hearing either. Nor would she have spoken of forgiveness.
“Right now it won’t be pretty,” she told the prosecutor that day.
“I can’t say 48 hours after you killed my mother that I forgive you. I can’t say that,” Esther Lance said recently. “You hurt me. You took my mama from me, and I’m supposed to forgive you? I’m sorry, I don’t.”
She would have told Roof that first she needs to heal herself.
“I just got hate for him right now,” she admitted.
But Esther Lance will speak. She’ll do so during the sentencing at Roof’s trial, when it’s his life at stake, in her time and not his.
Myra Thompson’s husband had not planned to attend Roof’s bond hearing. After 27 years working for probation and parole, Anthony Thompson knows these proceedings usually aren’t a big deal.
But their children wanted to go.
As they drove toward the detention center courtroom, he warned: “We’re not going to say anything. Nothing.”
They sat together. But as Thompson hung his head, “Bam!” He felt God speak to him, telling him what to say.
A local Reformed Episcopal minister, he is an obedient man when it comes to God. So when his 59-year-old wife’s name rang out, he rose. Their children peered at him.
“I’ll tell you later,” he whispered.
“Your name, sir?” the magistrate asked.
Not Rev. Thompson, which he is, just Anthony Thompson, the husband and not the preacher. His voice emerged soft but poised. He echoed Collier’s words of forgiveness. But then he continued, speaking directly to the pale, motionless man on the television screen:
“We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it, can change your ways.”
Thompson stared at Roof, trying to grab the accused killer’s eye. For a quick second, he caught it.
Today, the pastor prays for inmates at the jail where his work once took him. He includes Roof among those he knows by name. “I ask God to forgive him every night.”
God wanted him at that bond hearing so he could speak those words of repentance and forgiveness. Of that, he is certain.
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