Washington, D.C. - When nine members of the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC were gunned down by a white supremacist they had welcomed into their Bible study in 2015, the community feared the murders would be accompanied by riots. But the families of the fallen had different plans. Just 48 hours after Dylann Roof had killed their loved ones, a few of the families faced him in court and told him they forgave him, and they wished he would soon repent and find God.
The new documentary Emanuel, from Director Brian Ivie, lets the families tell their stories and explain for themselves how they were able to find that forgiveness. NBA star Steph Curry and Academy Award winner Viola Davis serve as executive producers on the film, while "Law and Order: SVU" star Mariska Hargitay serves as a co-producer. Hargitay helped host last week's premiere in Washington. In what I believe was the most moving moment of the night, Hargitay helped present an award to Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the Emanuel Nine. Mrs. Pinckney was surprised, overcome with emotion, and greatly deserving of the honor.
Before the screening, I and a group of other journalists had the honor of sitting across from survivors and loved ones related to the Emanuel Nine, including survivors Polly Sheppard and Felicia Sanders. We sat compelled listening as they spoke about God's favor on their lives.
"The average person would have not survived," one survivor said. "But He had so much favor on me that He did not let me lose my mind."
Pinckney agreed and said she finds hope by simply looking at her daughters, whose dad had a strong impact on them. Instead of pushing aside the grief his memory may bring, they talk about him and they still dance. Her daughter Eliana, Pinckney said, once told her, "Mama, I dance for daddy."
"They continue to move forward," Pinckney explained. "They want daddy to be proud."
"I just look at them and see how positive they are and just how they continue to grow and prosper," she added.
The survivors admitted to being reluctant at first to take part in Emanuel, but after a happenstance meeting between Sanders and producer Dimas Salaberrios in an airport, things fell into place. The two even happened to be reading the same book.
"They caught me at the Eleventh hour," Sanders said.
Sanders seemed pleased she ultimately decided to do the film, because she's learned timeless lessons.
"You can fall seven times but get back up again," Sanders said. "I've learned how to forgive from this documentary."
Forgiving Roof, Reverend Anthony Batiste Thompson agreed, changed his life. His wife Myra was killed in the attack, but Thompson said the act of forgiveness gave him "peace" from God that has stuck with him until today and allowed him to move forward.
Emanuel is in theaters June 17 and June 19.