Let someone walk into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church with a backpack and Polly Sheppard relives June 17, 2015. That’s when white supremacist Dylann Roof walked in.
“Only in that church. Other churches I can sit and be calm,” Sheppard told Baptist Press in advance of the documentary film “Emanuel.” “But when I go to Emanuel and they come in with a backpack and anything like that, I say it’s somebody coming in to do harm, but it doesn’t have to be.”
Roof walked into the church during an evening Bible study and sat silent an hour before methodically shooting church members multiple times as they hung their heads in prayer.
“When we were doing the benediction with our eyes closed, we were standing with our eyes closed and the pastor was praying,” Sheppard recalls, “and that’s when he, that’s when he started to shoot.”
Sheppard shares her experience in the film Emanuel, in theaters two nights only June 17 and 19. The film tells the story of the massacre against the backdrop of Charleston, S.C., race relations, the historical importance of the church to African Americans, and lessons in forgiveness that resonated internationally after the crime.
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Walter Strickland is among scholars featured in the film. Strickland, SEBTS associate vice president for diversity and assistant professor of systematic and contextual theology, spoke on the history of race relations and Emanuel AME’s symbolic value as a target of hate.
“For many black people,” Strickland said in an advance copy of the film, “the Christian faith began to be that thing that allowed them to stand and go about week, after week, after week of the abuse, of the oppression that they took.”
Emanuel includes interviews with family members of those Roof killed, scholars, clergy and journalists, with news footage and historical reenactments. Sheppard was one of three survivors of the massacre. Felicia Sanders survived by playing dead, her still, prostrate body shielding her 11-year-old granddaughter as Roof unloaded a round into her 26-year-old son Tywanza, who died just feet away. Roof killed Sanders’ 87-year-old aunt, Susie Jackson.
Others slain were 41-year-old senior pastor Clementa Pinckney; 45-year-old pastor Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; 74-year-old former pastor Daniel Simmons; 59-year-old Bible teacher Myra Thompson; 54-year-old Bin Hurd; 70-year-old Ethel Lance, and 49-year-old Depayne Middleton Doctor. Most of the church’s ministerial staff were killed, Sheppard said.
Four years later, Sheppard mostly attends Mt. Zion AME Church. Roof let her live, he claimed as she crouched amid others’ blood, to tell the story of his crime.
“When he was coming towards me, I was thinking, I said maybe I can catch his legs or take him down some kind of way,” Sheppard told BP. “But I kept hearing this voice, ‘Be still and know that I am God. Be still.’ … It was almost like I could hear it. ‘Be still and know that I am God. Be still.'”
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Source: Baptist Press