Four years after a confessed white supremacist turned his gun on those seated alongside him during Bible study in the basement of an historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Nadine Collier no longer worships at the place where her mother and eight others were fatally shot.
“Everything about that church reminds me of my mom,” Collier, 51, tells PEOPLE about the enduring impact of the June 17, 2015 shooting.
Yet Collier was the first to forgive the shooter, now 25-year-old Dylann Roof, when he appeared in court two days later. Roof, who is unrepentant, has since been sentenced to death and many of Collier’s fellow parishioners are still trying to forgive him. Their journey is chronicled in a new documentary exploring the horrific event in the historical context of race relations in the southern port city that served as a gateway to the African slave trade.
The film, Emanuel — executive produced by Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis and NBA star Stephen Curry — screens Monday and Wednesday in select cities nationwide. (Click here for locations and tickets.)
The murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, affectionately called Mother Emanuel, focused the attention of the country. President Barack Obama broke into the opening refrain of “Amazing Grace” on live television during his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a church pastor and state senator who was among the victims.
But moving forward has been a challenge for many in the community.
“For those who forgave at the very beginning, I admire them,” says church member Melvin Graham Jr., in an exclusive clip from the documentary, above. “God truly worked a work in them. Truly. I’m a work in progress.”
Waltrina Middleton, whose cousin the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor was killed, says in the film: “We never got to the truth-telling. We never got to the place where we talked about ‘Why.’ Why did this man come into this church and felt empowered to claim all these lives? We never talked about the reality of racism in this city, in this community, in this country, and what do I say to DePayne’s four daughters? What do I say to them when the headlines say ‘Forgive,’ and I’m trying to explain and reconcile that their mother was shot to death in the basement of this church?”
Collier tells PEOPLE she found inspiration in the voice of her mother, victim Ethel Lance, who in her retirement had taken over custodial shifts at the church from another daughter who was ailing. Lance, 70, was attending the Bible study when she was killed.
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In the courtroom with other victim’s family members at Roof’s bond hearing two days after the attack, Collier rose and heard her mother’s voice telling her, “Nadine, don’t say anything wrong, don’t say anything bad, believe in God,” she says.
“Something just came over me,” she says. “The anger … I have to let it go … I have to let my heart be free.”
“I said to him, ‘You have taken something very precious away from me and you have hurt a lot of people,’ and I said, ‘I won’t be able to talk to my mom no more, I won’t be able to hold her no more.’ But I said, ‘God forgives you, and I forgive you.’”
‘In Order to Move Forward, You Have to Forgive’
Polly Sheppard was in the study group when Roof began shooting. She took quick cover under a table. “I was thinking, can I get his leg? Can I take him down?,” Sheppard, 74, tells PEOPLE. “But I didn’t move. I became calm. I was waiting for the bullet, but it never came.”
“When Dylann got to me, he decided he was going to leave me,” she says. “He could hear me praying. He got to me, he said, ‘shut up, I knew you were here all the time.’ Then he asked me, ‘Did I shoot you yet?’ And I said no. He said, ‘I’m going to leave you to tell the story.’”
Roof then turned his attention to Tywanza Sanders, 26, a recent graduate of Allen University. “Tywanza asked him, ‘Why are you doing this? You don’t have to do this.’ And he [Roof] said, ‘I have to do this.’ And then Tywanza said, ‘we mean you no harm.’ He said it two or three times before he shot him.”
Sheppard attended many of Roof’s court hearings before he pleaded guilty to the killings without a trial. “I wanted to know exactly what was on his mind,” she says. She learned about his indoctrination into a culture of white supremacy, about the messages he absorbed that “black people were taking over the country,” she says. “That’s what he said in the room that night when he was talking to Tywanza.”
But rather than dwell on Roof’s motivation, it’s the story of the victims she chooses to tell.
“Tywanza had just finished college and he was going on to another college for another speciality,” she says. “He had this infectious smile. … The oldest lady in the church was Susie Jackson. She was 87 when it happened. She sang in the choir, and she was the glue that kept her family tight.” The Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. “knew that Bible like the back of his hand. A stately gentleman.” Myra Thompson “taught a lot of reading, she had two or three master’s degrees in reading and counseling.” Sharonda Coleman-Singleton “had three children, two boys and one girl, and she could preach very well, and she was a track coach and a speech therapist.” Cynthia Hurd was a librarian.
“These are real people,” says Sheppard. “These were people’s family members — people we’re supposed to remember and honor, what they were to the church and to their families. Everywhere I go I try to mention their name.”
She tackles gun violence when she can. “That pistol Dylann had, it had hollow point bullets in it. That was for destruction. Those are war weapons, and we shouldn’t be at war with each other,” she says.
And she sees her city evolving in the wake of the attack, albeit slowly. “We are at least beginning to talk to each other, and the mayor apologized for slavery, which was a big thing,” she says.
But Sheppard also celebrates a revival of spirit. “This happened on a Wednesday night,” she says. “Four days later we were back in church.”
“It’s a choice,” she says. “If you go on with that unforgiven spirit, you won’t heal. In order to move forward, you have to forgive.”
Collier, too, has reached a turning point that she hopes audiences can better appreciate through the lens of the documentary.
“I want people to understand, this was a painful thing to me,” she says. “I will never forget. And I’m still in pain. I’m still hurting. My mom was everything to me.”
“I hope the lesson that they’ll take from this film,” she says, “is that forgiveness is power.”
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