One of the many benefits of having bookish friends is when they make you aware of a book that you likely wouldn’t have picked up on your own. My friend Jennifer, who is a librarian extraordinaire at a university in Alabama, told my longtime parenting group’s book forum about an author visit she was hosting a while back: one Ms. Jennifer Berry Hawes, author of Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness (St. Martin’s Press, 2019). I remembered this tragedy well; the title of this book, however, made me a little nervous. I had avoided the book about the gunman who shot up an Amish school simply because of the religious pressure to forgive, which isn’t the way my religion works, and the very idea of being required to forgive even when you’re not ready for it made me uncomfortable. But my friend assured me it wasn’t that kind of book; that not everyone forgave the killer, and that it was a really incredibly story all around, so onto my list it went.
In 2015, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a traditionally Black church, hosted a Bible study one Wednesday evening in June. A young white man joined the Black churchgoers; this wasn’t unusual, and they welcomed him with open arms. And as the Bible study concluded, the young man pulled out a gun and murdered nine people.
The manhunt that followed was successful fairly quickly, but the mess he left behind at Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, stretched on and on. Almost the entire pastoral leadership had been murdered; husbands had lost wives, wives had lost husbands, parents had lost children. Grief amplifies what is already there, and some family relationships, already struggling, fractured further. The leadership that took over in the wake of the massacre seemed to have the wrong motivations, and financial hijinks made everyone suspicious. Longtime church members, include some who were present and survived the massacre, began to fall away from the church. Some of the survivors immediately forgave the gunman; others struggled with the concept, while still others were unsure how to ever move on with their lives without their loved ones.
This isn’t a pretty, wrapped-up-in-a-bow, everyone-holds-hands-and-sings story of a mass shooting. This is raw pain and anger, desperation, and grief. The survivors grapple with a lot of painful emotions surrounding the massacre- not only the losses of the their friends and family, but the losses of their trusted clergy, the loss of their perceived safety, the loss of trust in the team that stepped in to lead afterwards, the loss of love between family members, the anger they felt at the entire situation. Their pain and, at times, desperation, is palpable. Ms. Hawes conveys that excellently while still allowing the survivors the respect and dignity they deserve.
There is quite a lot of coverage of and about the killer in this book (I’m not using his name here); the depths of his soullessness are disturbing, so be prepared for that if you pick this book up. And there are plenty of parts that will bring you to tears, for many different reasons- depth of strength, grief, suffering, the community coming together, the senselessness of it all. There’s hope as well, but mostly, there’s pain, and a community that suffers deeply because of hatred. Grace Will Lead Us Home is an amazingly well-written book, one that I wish hadn’t had to be written at all.