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Heartbroken Families Forgive South Carolina Church Shooter

Shannon Woodland - 700 Club Producer

This is Charleston, South Carolina, where remnants of the past linger on every corner. It’s home to more than 400 churches – their symbols of faith etched into the horizon.

Professor Damon Fordham: “Charleston is referred to as The Holy City simply because of its number of churches. During the days of the American Revolution, it was considered a place of relative religious freedom for the French Huguenots, the Catholics, and even the Jews.”  

And tucked away near the Charleston harbor stands Mother Emanuel, an A.M.E. church whose history stretches back to the days of slavery. The congregation settled here in 1891 and became a beacon of hope during the 1960s, advocating civil rights leaders like Martin Luther Ling, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "I don’t see the answer to our problem in riots. So my slogan is not ‘burn, baby, burn.’ My slogan is ‘Build, baby, build’ and ‘organize, baby, organize.’”

Professor Damon Fordham says, “He told the audience, ‘I believe consistently in nonviolence. From a moral point of view, this isn't the way. From a practical point of view, this isn't the way.’”

Mother Emanuel listened. And through the years they lived and preached in love, acting as agents of peace in times of disunity. Then, hate challenged their resolve.

911 CALL
Operator: “All units responding 110 Calhoun Street.”
Responder: “Give me at least four medic units.”

June 17, 2015 – members of Mother Emanuel welcome a stranger into their Wednesday night bible study. An hour later, that stranger opens fire.
 
911 CALL
Operator: “Respond to incident 10, incident 10.”
Responder 1: “I copy several victims.”
Responder 2: “Advising of an active shooter, multiple people down.”
 
One of the men in the bible study was Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., a church staff member and beloved grandfather of four.

Alana Simmons says, “My dad called me and told me, ‘I’m headed to Charleston. There was a shooting at your grandfather's church. Whether he was there or not, I'm on my way.’ I got home, I turned on CNN and it was like breaking news. I was watching and praying all night. We really didn't want that to be him.”

Daniel Simmons was a Vietnam War vet and fourth generation preacher. He answered to the name Dan, but those at Mother Emanuel knew him as “Super Simmons.”

Alana Simmons says, “My grandfather was a very strong individual. He was very strong-willed and it was hard to convince him of anything that he didn't already know. In the same respect, I would say that he was very strong in his faith. He had a sermon for almost anything that you can think of. He loved the AME Church. I don't think that he would have preferred to be any other place knowing how much he loved to study the Bible.”

Police Chief Greg Mullen: “At 9:05 this evening, we received a call of a shooting at the church here on Calhoun street. There were eight deceased individuals inside of the church.”

But the ninth victim, Alana’s grandfather, was still breathing. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds and was rushed to the hospital. As Alana waited to hear if he made it through surgery, the reality of what had happened began to sink in.
 
Reporter: “Police are still looking for the shooter. He’s described as a clean-shaven white male in his early twenties.”

Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. says, “The only reason someone could walk into church and shoot people during prayer is out of hate.”

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said, “The Department of Justice has opened a hate crime investigation into this shooting incident.”

Alana Simmons says, "How did this happen? Why did this happen? I can’t believe this happened. They're God's people. I wanted him to be able to survive this situation. I wanted to be able to just talk to him just one more time.”

Hours later, Alana got another call – her grandfather didn’t make it. And eight victims became nine.

Alana Simmons says, “I was devastated. To lose someone to a race crime like that, especially in the middle of prayer, it makes you angry to think that we're still in that same place of hatred that we were years and years ago.”

Reporter: “The shooter has been identified as Dylan Roof. He was captured just outside of Charlotte, NC, twelve hours after opening fire on a historic black church.”

Governor Nikki Haley said, “And I will tell you that there is a lot of prayer in this state. And so you are going to see all of this try and lift these nine families up in prayer because they need us.”

Reverend Norvel Goff said, “The blood of the Emanuel nine, requires us to work.”

Pastor Dimas Salaberrios said, “The world cannot understand why we are not crying at this moment, why we are not bitter.”

Professor Damon Fordham said, “Two days after the shooting, a bunch of us marched to Mother Emanuel. We were clapping and singing spirituals like ‘Victory is mine, victory is mine, victory today is mine.’ As we were getting up to the church, we heard this foreign sound coming from the middle of the street. And we turned around and the Jewish Community of Charleston made a circle in the middle of the street and did the Kaddish, which is their Hebrew prayer of the dead, as gesture of solidarity with us.”

The following day, the surviving families came together for Roof’s bond hearing. With emotions running high, a few of the family members approached the front of the courtroom to confront the man who murdered their loved ones.

Nadine Collier told the shooter, “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her, ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.”

Anthony Thompson said to him, “I forgive you and my family forgives you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ.”

Felicia Sanders said to Dylann, “Every fiber in my body hurt, and I’ll never be the same. But may God have mercy on you.”

Alana Simmons says, “I’m certain that at the time that my grandfather served in the Army and at the time that he even grew up, that he was mistreated simply because of the way that he looked, and he never in his life would have been the kind to harbor negative feelings. He had to forgive them so that he could go on and live in love.”

And she knew there was only one way that she could truly honor his memory – by forgiving his killer.

Alana Simmons said to him, "Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone's plea for your soul is proof that they lived and loved and their legacies will live and love. So hate won't win."

What started as a show of forgiveness in a courtroom has now become a movement that Alana calls “Hate Won’t Win.” it is inspiring communities all of the country, and it’s all in honor of her grandfather.

Alana Simmons says, “To show you that I can love you and you can love me and…we can work together to-to better our community. That's what Hate Won't Win Movement is all about. I know that he's looking down on how we've chosen to carry on his legacy, that he would be very, very proud of what we're doing.”

While the tragedy within these walls will never be forgotten, the nine lives taken out of hate live on in the hearts of those who have chosen to love.

Professor Damon Fordham says, “One thing that we can say for now is that there was this city called Charleston who refused to listen to the voices of madness and chose wise counsel and handled the situation with grace and dignity.”

Alana Simmons says, “Knowing my grandfather, he wouldn't have had it any other way. Yes, I lost my grandfather, Yes, other people lost their lives and we can't get them back. Yes, hate brought us here, but look where love is going to take us.”

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