Murderer Dylann Roof told Polly Shepherd that he allowed her to live so that she could bear witness to the story of how he killed nine churchgoers during a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015. What the white supremacist did not realize that day was that the story Shepherd is bearing witness to four years later isn’t the one he expected her to tell.
Founded in 1816, Emanuel is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the south, having played a role in the civil rights movement and in shining a light on police brutality. But the shooting of “the Charleston 9” has put the spotlight back on the African American church, and on Shepherd in particular, in the upcoming documentary, Emanuel, by director Brian Ivie.
“I was always a background person, but now I have to speak to whatever God tells me,” Shepherd shared from her home in Charleston.
Shepherd remembers a bright light in the room where the study was underway. While Roof had been participating in the study for about an hour prior to shooting nine of Shepherd’s fellow churchgoers, Shepherd remembers that everything became still, quiet even, all of a sudden.
“You couldn’t even hear the crickets outside, and the night was muggy,” remembered the survivor. “There was a light on him, and a bright light over everyone. I thought the transformer had blown. But I know God was present in that room. I knew God had more work for me to do. He let me know he never retires.”
While some of the family members of the deceased churchgoers spontaneously stood up in the courtroom during the bond hearing and forgave Roof, calling him to repent, Shepherd admitted that she was not one of them. “I was in my house feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t want to be around people. But I had to get to a place where this was my new normal.”
With the pastor and the custodian among the dead, Emanuel was a mess. When her phone rang the following week, as another trustee asked her who they might get to go and clean up, Shepherd and her husband decided that it was time to go back to church. While her husband’s family had been raised in the church, Shepherd said she had come more recently… thirty-eight years ago! But the pull of church life, and the power of God’s movement, drew her back less than a week after she was nearly murdered while praying.
Three months of counseling followed, and she has forgiven Roof. She calls him by his first name, and states clearly that she does not believe he should be executed by the federal government (the state sentencing has him serving life sentences. “God forgave him. He needs to repent. He’ll have to deal with the consequences of what he did. But you can’t give a life, so you shouldn’t take one,” she said.
Now, Shepherd attends a new Bible study in Charleston, with anywhere from sixty to eighty people who are reading books about race and faith. She says that truth is spoken there, but that while there are changes (the Confederate flag was taken down, the mayor issued a proclamation apologizing for slavery), there is so far we have yet to go.
“We need to learn to love our neighbor as yourself. I know we have to sow the seed, reach one or two people at a time. We need to start young in the schools. Dylann was twenty-one; his life is over at twenty-one.”
Shepherd will keep pushing for racial reconciliation, keep articulating what she knows about God’s goodness and the power of redemption. She knows that it was not the gunman who saved her that day, but God. To bear witness to the light, to tell a story about forgiveness.
From executive producers Steph Curry and Viola Davis, and co-producer Mariska Hargitay, Emanuel is in theaters June 17 and 19. Visit https://www.emanuelmovie.com for tickets and more information.