Forgiveness is not for the person who has done wrong. “Forgiveness is for you. Holding onto hatred is like an acid. Letting go of the hatred allows you to get on with your life.”
Those were the words of Polly Sheppard, who was one of three survivors when a gunman killed nine people during a Bible study on June 17, 2015, at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
“It’s too heavy,” said Rosa Simmons, whose father, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, was among those killed. “Human beings were made for forgiveness … when we don’t forgive, it robs us of our peace” to live with for the rest of our lives.
Both women visited Wilton Congregational Church on Sept. 7 at the invitation of Morning Meditations with Sisters in Community, a prayer group that meets weekly at the Wilton home of Adrienne Reedy. In the church’s meeting room, nine candles were lit to remember those who died: Depayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman Singleton, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, and Cynthia Hurd.
Sheppard and Simmons are traveling with the Rev. Anthony Thompson, husband of Myra Thompson, to churches, universities and other institutions speaking about forgiveness and how they have come to forgive the shooter who said he gunned down those gathered at the church because they were black.
Sheppard, a retired nurse, recounted how she was saved when the assassin’s gun jammed. “God stepped in right in time. God saved me,” she said. Sheppard was crouched under a table while the shooter’s gun discharged 77 bullets. “When he was coming I stiffened my body for the bullet,” she said. “I prayed to God, I knew all the power was in God’s hands. I had given up, but He had work for me to do.”
“We must end gun violence and require racial reconciliation now,” she said, remembering the victims — each of whom she knew — and what they meant to her. What took their lives was “an evil I don’t think we will ever comprehend in our lifetime.”
She hopes that people can gather together to express that love is greater than hate, “together we can hope, together we can love, together we can be fighters for change. To heal we must forgive … love never fails, so I choose love,” she said, adding that it is her faith that sustains her.
Of Sheppard, Simmons said, “Miss Polly is our pillar of strength and she’s an inspiration to me.”
Her father was a pastor for 30 years before he retired. She told how he overcame many hurdles in his life, but the one he could not overcome — being black — was why he died that day.
Simmons explained she was in prison when the shooting took place. She was serving a 30-year sentence, having been convicted of financial wrongdoings. In the years leading up to that she and her father had barely talked, but before she entered prison they made their peace with one another.
The shooting set in motion a sequence of events she said that even now she finds hard to believe. Prison officials worked to get her released and the FBI paid for her to go to Charleston for four days to attend her father’s funeral and be with her family, she said. After returning to prison, she was set free within 10 days. It was evidence, she said, of where the Bible says “God will take your enemies and make them your best protectors.”
Other things have happened as well. Simmons said on more than one occasion she has had white people apologize to her for slavery.
“Many times this has happened, and I really didn’t understand why they were doing this,” she said. After praying she said she came to understand “when people apologize to you for slavery it’s because there is something in their hearts that connected them to those thoughts.
“I think what this particular incident has done,” she said of the shooting, “it has made more people” of all races and nationalities “it has brought us back to a place of humanity and I think that’s important and now we have some courage to talk about those age-old anthems of bigotry and prejudice and racial divisions, and those have been stored too long in the hearts of Americans.”
In conclusion, Reedy implored “this conversation has to continue … we cannot let this stop here.”