By Raul Vasquez
As I rode in the back of a taxi on a warm Sunday morning in June through the historic streets of Charleston, South Carolina, it seemed at first glance like a perfectly normal day. Couples leisurely pushed strollers. Vendors set up booths at an outdoor market. Picturesque horse-drawn carriages rolled along by the light traffic.
I asked the driver to drop me at Marion Square, in the heart of the city and a few hundred feet from the African Methodist Emanuel Episcopal Church.
Over the last few years, Americans have seen groups of civilians massacred on a scale that can only be described as shocking. To cite them, we only need mention their city: Orlando… San Bernardino… Roseburg… Dallas…
Just after 8 p.m. on June 17, 2015, a young man joined a Bible study group at the AME Church. After an hour of sitting with churchgoers, who’d welcomed him, he shot and killed nine of them.
The next day, when he was being interrogated by the FBI, he said his goal was to start a race war in the United States.
A few weeks after the shooting, the granddaughters of one of the victims, the Reverend Daniel Simmons, Sr., were invited to Public Allies’ National Leadership Institute to share their story, and to describe the birth of their campaign, “Hate Won’t Win,” which was a direct response to the killings. This June, the sisters — Ava and Alana Simmons — invited Public Allies to be a part of their March for Unity in Charleston on the first anniversary of the tragedy.
“The purpose of this event,” wrote Alana in the invitation, “is to have people from all walks of life stand in love against the hateful acts that took the lives of nine wonderful souls.”
When I emerged from the taxi on the morning of Saturday, June 18, I cut through the seeming normality of Charleston to join hundreds of people who’d assembled in front of the AME Church. Most of those in attendance had personally known some or all of the nine people who were killed here exactly a year earlier.
For some of them, being here on the first anniversary brought back fresh the pain and anguish.
As I was waiting for the service to start, I began a conversation with a woman who told me that one of her family members was among the killed, and that this was the first time she had participated in any memorial service for the victims.
“It’s been just too painful,” she said. “That night I was going to be at the prayer service, but at the last minute I couldn’t make it…”
We stood for a short prayer service in front of the AME Church, and afterward everyone began to march to another plaza a few blocks away, where a large tent had been set up. Those who couldn’t fit inside stood nearby to listen to speakers such as Ava Simmons and Dr. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The message of the day — not just in words, but actions — was love. A love for community. A love by and for the people who have been carrying the weight of their loss. And as the service carried on, I stood there in the hard shade of a midday Charleston summer day, and I could feel the power of their love.
Through all the pain, in spite of such a hurtful, hateful attack on their community, the people of Charleston and especially the members of then AME Church congregation had found the courage to come together to love one another, to show forgiveness, and to recommit to the bonds that make them a community.
There were many tears that day, but there were many more embraces, and warm smiles. Healing itself seemed to hang in the air.
After the service, I walked back to the AME Church. When I reached the base of the building that held a flower-filled memorial for the victims, I saw a young woman clutching a single red rose while she sang and wailed at the top of her voice.
She stayed in that spot on the sidewalk for several minutes. A couple with two children were walking past the AME Church and saw her. They walked closer to her and stood by her side. The mother of the family gently laid her hand on the back of the young woman’s neck for a few moments.
Soon after, I saw the same young woman walking away from the AME Church, looking completely exhausted. The family’s mother now had her arm around the young woman’s shoulder, and together they all walked away from the church.
“This is the first time I cried since it happened,” I could overhear the young woman saying as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I haven’t been able to cry until today.”