Pulitzer Prize-Winning Reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes on How the Mother Emanuel Community Has Changed 4 Years After the Shooting

People march in memory of the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting victims in Charleston, S.C., on June 20, 2015. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Four years ago on June 17, when Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church became national news, Jennifer Berry Hawes was one of the first reporters on the scene to cover the massacre.

Now Hawes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., has written “Grace Will Lead Us Home,” a book about the shooting that left its pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and eight members dead and many more lives irreparably changed.

Hawes, a former religion writer, named the book after a portion of the hymn “Amazing Grace” — which President Obama sang at Pinckney’s funeral. She spoke to Religion News Service about what people don’t know about the tragedy, how the church and community have changed, and the successes and challenges that have occurred with race relations.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

You have covered the story of the Mother Emanuel AME massacre from the beginning. What are one or two key things that most people don’t know about this tragedy and its aftermath that you think they should know?

I think probably the most important thing that most people don’t know is that while the narrative about the family members’ forgiveness gelled around this tragedy, the reality was that many of those who were very deeply affected in fact did not forgive (convicted killer) Dylann Roof. Certainly not right away. Instead, there were those who felt strongly that the narrative, while beautiful and inspiring, also took some of the wind from the sails of really pressing for meaningful changes that would address racism and racial disparities here. So it was much more complicated than that narrative would lead many people to believe.

Are churches as segregated as ever in Charleston or has there been any kind of long-term change since the massacre?

“Grace Will Lead Us Home” by Jennifer
Berry Hawes. Cover courtesy of St.
Martin’s Press

The churches themselves are as segregated as ever. What has changed is that there are efforts to bridge divides between the people in those churches. A good example is that Emanuel’s daughter church here, Mount Zion AME, sits right next to a historic white church called Grace Episcopal Church. These churches have sat side by side for generations and generations, one being predominantly white, one being predominantly black. After the shooting, the pastors of those two churches — and I should say one is Kylon Middleton, a man who was very close to Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel who was killed — Rev. Middleton and the rector at Grace got together and they created this book study, which is very large. It can draw upward of a hundred people or more every Tuesday night and it’s a diverse group from those two congregations who get together and discuss books that have to do with race or essays. And then they discuss them in terms of their lives and it’s a way to bring people together, obviously more in just fellowship, but also to really try to have conversations about race that have just been avoided for generations and generations.

Mother Emanuel has gone through a couple of pastors since the tragedy and has been questioned about how it handled the grief of the families of the survivors and the victims as well as the money donated on their behalf. How is it doing now?

On the first anniversary, the bishop switched out the pastor of Emanuel and Rev. Eric Manning was assigned to the church. And he’s been there since. I think having one pastor there for a period of time has certainly helped bring some stability. I think there’s still considerable pain, for instance, with Felicia Sanders, who’s one of the survivors of the shooting. Her little granddaughter was there and also survived but the church never shared the money from donations specifically with the granddaughter. So, Felicia is left to pay for her medical bills and therapy without the aid of those donations, and that, I know, for her has been painful.

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Source: Religion News Service