Wilton film screening offers lessons from a church tragedy
Four years ago, on June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist joined the Bible study taking place at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. He then shot and killed nine of the African Americans taking part.
On the fourth anniversary of that horrific event, the film Emanuel was released, a documentary on the events leading up to it and the aftermath. Among its executive producers are Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and actress Viola Davis.
That film will be screened, followed by a panel discussion, on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 7:30 p.m., at Wilton Congregational Church. Among those speaking will be Polly Sheppard, a survivor of the shooting, and Rose Simmons, daughter of Daniel L. Simmons, a pastor who served another AME church, who was killed.
The film had a limited theatrical release on June 17 and June 19, but it is being shown in numerous churches and other venues including presentations by the United Methodist Church of New Canaan on Sept. 17, and Stanwich Congregational Church in Greenwich on Sept. 18. It has also been released on DVD.
The presentation in Wilton is being coordinated by the Rev. Anne Coffman, senior minister at Wilton Congregational, and Adrienne Reedy, who also put together a prayer service at the church just days after the shooting and also brought Sheppard and Simmons to Wilton last year for a program on forgiveness.
Reedy described the film as a “movie about forgiveness and the triumph with which people came to recognize that in order to move on they had to forgive.”
To reach that point, though, the film recounts Charleston’s history as being known as the “slave capital” of a young country and South Carolina’s struggle with finally removing the Confederate flag from the state capitol.
“Racism is as American as apple pie. It goes back to the founding of our country,” AME Pastor Joseph Darby says in the film, as images are overlaid of white people, some smiling, at the lynching of black men. Incidents of white police officers killing unarmed black men are recounted.
There is news footage of the shooting, interviews with reporters who covered it, the 911 call. There are remarks by law enforcement as well as video of the shooter being interviewed by police. A portion of President Obama’s eulogy of the church pastor, who was gunned down, is included. Mostly, there are interviews with the survivors and family members of those killed.
Just 48 hours after the shooting, family members gathered in the courthouse for the shooter’s bond hearing. They had not planned to say anything, but the judge invited them to address the shooter, who was not in the courtroom but on a large video screen.
One by one, family members testified to the pain and suffering he had caused, but then some of them said they found it in their hearts to forgive him.
“A lot of people was angry with what I said, but what I said I said from the bottom of my heart,” said Nadine Collier, whose mother was killed. “It’s like something just came over me … And I knew that’s what my mama wanted, not to have hatred in your heart.”
Chris Singleton, whose mother was killed, later told a reporter he had forgiven the shooter, much to his own surprise.
“I don’t know why I said it, it just came out,” he says in the film. “I felt like that wasn’t me.” Singleton recalled a scripture he reflected on for inspiration as he played baseball — “If you fail in the face of adversity, you are a man of little strength.”
That scripture he decided later, wasn’t for baseball, “it was for the trials I was gonna go through when my mother was killed.”
The family members were not forgiving the shooter for what he did to their loved ones, but by offering forgiveness, they can walk away free, one of those interviewed said, while the shooter carries the burden of his action.
“What I love about the film is that not everyone has reached that place of forgiveness, so it’s real,” Reedy said. “What they are talking about is reconciliation. They were concerned with the shooter’s salvation.
“This documentary is really about their journey,” she said.
“People want justice in terms of things being made right,” Coffman said. “Things can never be made right.”
The race war the shooter is said to have hoped for in the aftermath did not happen in Charleston. Reedy thinks this is a signal for hope.
“I think this is a movement,” she said. “I don’t know if it was planned — what happened at the church, the Confederate flag coming down — I think there’s a movement going on and it’s important for our nation to heal from systemic racism.”
“The fact that the Emanuel church members could act in this way,” Coffman said referencing their forgiveness “changed everything.”
Both Coffman and Reedy hope the showing of this film can precipitate continuing conversations about racism in America.
“Churches should be leading the dialog,” Reedy said. “We want the community to realize there are safe places to have these conversations. It can’t be business as usual afterwards.
“We are hoping to have conversations that are honest. It’s not about pointing the finger,” she said. “It’s about growing. You have to be open to hearing the other side.”