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Grace Will Lead Us Home

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Most Americans remember all to well the news reports of the young white man who attended a Bible study at an historic black church and, after sitting through the study, opened fire, killing nine of the attendees.  We were all inspired by the response of some of the church members, who, just days after this young man killed their family members, told him they forgave him, and invited him to repent and give his life to Jesus.

Jennifer Berry Hawes's Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness thoroughly describes the massacre itself and the aftermath and impact on the surviving family members, church, and community.  The strongest part of the book is the detailed description of the attack at the Bible study.  It's heart-wrenching, tear-jerking.  And the grace and forgiveness displayed by the survivors is inspiring.

Not so inspiring is the ugliness of church politics and greed that arose in the aftermath.  The senior pastor and several other pastors and lay pastors were in attendance at the Bible study.  The church was left without much pastoral leadership in place.  The church, an important congregation regionally, in the denomination, and in African-American history, is a prime pulpit, so the denomination's bishop took over pastoral duties.  When money came rolling in from well-wishers around the world, this pastor was evasive and secretive about the money, which amounted to millions of dollars, and ended up keeping a good chunk of it for facility improvements at church--and who knows what else.

Berry Hawes personalizes this story and its aftermath with a high degree of detail and depth.  One of the surprising elements, at least to me, is the sympathetic treatment she gives the shooter's family.  Apparently his deep racism came not from family tradition, but from his solitary explorations of the dark reaches of the internet.  (By the way, he says he was concerned about black people murdering and raping white people.  So why target a bunch of church ladies at a Bible study?  This is  evidence of his illogical idiocy.)  His parents and grandparents were rightly devastated by his actions.  

This is not an easy book to read, as it shows such an ugly episode up close and personal.  But the theme of redemption and healing is strong, as is the recognition that the race war this shooter wanted to start did not take root.  When hate could have taken the headlines, grace and forgiveness took center stage.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!
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Grace Will Lead Us Home by Jennifer Berry Hawes is the moving and impassioned recounting of the Charleston Church shooting in 2015 where Dylan Roof gunned down nine black people in the AME Church during a bible study. The details of the shooting are highly painful and jarring. Hawes has the ability to put the reader inside the church as the bloodshed is going down for better or worse. I definitely felt uncomfortable with how vivid and detailed she was because it called to get into the minds of people as they were being killed or doing the killing. 

It would be easy perhaps to write this story as just in depth telling of the shooting and the subsequent trial, but Hawes goes much deeper and talks about the very complex processes of mourning, grief, and guilt the survivors and family members left behind. These sections really brought home the human nature of tragedy and that no one person reacts or grieves in the same way. It was very moving and emotional knowing that loss can just as easily tear people apart as it brings people together. 

A powerful human story that has something on life, death, and forgiveness in the midst of extreme tragedy for everyone.
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iven its subject, Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness was tough to read though very well-written. Devastating and terrible are the only words to describe what happened. I cannot fathom enduring what the victims and their families went through - and are still going through in their grief today, 4 years later. 

Grace Will Lead Us Home describes Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (aka: Mother Emanuel), its parishioners, the local community, and home city of Charleston. The book details the deadly evening on June 17, 2015 as well as the aftermath - Who were the victims? How did their families survive? What happened at the shooter’s trial? How did this event impact Charleston?

“This is a tragedy no community should have to experience,” he said, the firm tone of his words edged tightly with sorrow and determination. “It is senseless, and it is unfathomable that somebody in today’s society would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives.”

Though the topic is heartbreaking, Jennifer Berry Hawes paints a vivid picture of the victims, their lives, the survivors, and the trial. I am in awe of the victims’ families’ forgiveness, some of which was offered right away. I don’t think I would ever be able to do that. Through Hawes’ writing, I felt like I was hearing directly from the survivors and sitting in the courtroom, watching the trial myself. 

It was also disappointing and at parts, infuriating, to see what Goff, the first new pastor at Mother Emanuel following the shooting, was up to and the gross mismanagement of donations received by the church for the victims’ families. 

”Their portion was $150,340. Emanuel leaders had announced several months ago that well-wishers sent roughly $3.4 million to the church.” 

Goff seems shady AF - Yeah I said it, and my internet research after I finished this book did nothing to dissuade me of that notion. While some of the survivors were able to return to Mother Emanuel in time, Goff and the church’s questionable actions following the tragedy ultimately led others to seek out new churches to continue their worship elsewhere. As I read about this, it just seemed like an unnecessary blow on top of everything else they already had to endure. 

Reverend Pinckney’s wife, Jennifer, shared she felt robbed of a life with her husband, yet she still made every effort to provide a sense of normalcy for their two young daughters. The strength to forgive and the brave attempt to move on by the Mother Emmanuel survivors and their families is truly admirable. 

”Through its two-hundred-year history, this congregation had survived slavery, segregation, wars, a massive earthquake, hangings, and fires set by white racists. They would show the world that while devastated, Emanuel wasn’t destroyed now, either. Evil had entered this sacred space, but Emanuel still meant “God with us.”
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I finished this book at 1:30am and spent the rest of the night [when I was not sleeping, which was a lot of the rest of the night] thinking about what to write in this review - to do this amazing book justice. To do the victims justice. To honor both the victims and the survivors. To impart to all those who are looking at this book just how important it is to pick this book up and read it. And feel it. Learn from it. And then turn around and both pass this book on to someone else and use what they have learned to help and support someone who is dealing with the aftermath of violence and racial hatred. And here it is almost 12 hours later and I am still struggling to find the right words...

I had many, many emotions throughout this book - much sorrow, anger, frustration and then sorrow once again. Sorrow for these families and their loss. Sorrow for the loss of innocence for the beloved granddaughter who Felicia Sanders saved that night as she watched her beloved aunt and son die in front of her. Sorry for the survivors. There were many tears shed while reading this book.
But there was also anger [I feel bad for those who know me because I ranted a LOT while reading this]. Lots and lots of anger - anger at the killer [I refuse to name him and give him any more power], anger at how the "church" handled the aftermath of the shooting and effectively abandoned the families of the victims AND the survivors and anger at the attitude just weeks later that it was business as usual in that city while people were still grieving and trying to figure out how to walk through life. And there was anger at some of the families themselves, that could and would not see past their own selves to heal the wounds within their families to be able to grieve together and heal together. There was a lot of anger and tears over those sections of the book.

I pray that the victim's families and the survivors have found some semblance of peace [forgiveness gives you that, but you often have to work on that daily - sometimes even minute by minute] and are going to be able to move on in remembrance of what happened, but with peace in their hearts. I know from the epilogue that it doesn't happen for everyone, but again, forgiveness ties into that too. You can only move on and heal when you are willing to forgive those who will never receive it or ask for it back and when you are willing to pray over someone and blessings on someone who never, ever, deserves it.

I would be remiss in this review if I didn't talk about how this book is also one on race and just how America still responds to acts of violence against African American people. Against people of color. Against anyone who they view as different because of skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and just how frustrating that is - that in 2019 we still have to have these conversations. This is another reason that this book is SO important. We NEED to keep these discussions alive - we NEED to learn from events such as this to move forward in acceptance and love and caring. We are ALL human beings and we need to be reminded of that. And no one passage brings this home more than the one below [it is near the end of the book] that I am including here, because for me, it shows perfectly just HOW FAR we still have to go. And to be honest, that is a very, very, sad thing.

"And almost three years to the day after Roof slipped into Bible study, in the historical epicenter of America's slave trade, Charleston's City Council did something unimaginable before the massacre. Its members voted, albeit narrowly, to apologize on behalf of the city for its role in the institution of slavery. Many hailed the movie as an important step toward healing. Yet, among the five councilmen who opposed it - all but one of them white men - most said they wouldn't apologize for something they hadn't done [**SIDE-NOTE BY ME This is an example that is shown throughout this book - so many white people claiming that slavery had been good or that slaves had not been mistreated pops up again and again in this book as people were interviewed about the shooting. THIS was one of the most frustrating parts - just how blind people were to the past and to what was happening STILL at their own front doors]. As one former councilman asked: Why should we do it when so much of what we'd be apologizing for happened so long ago?"" 
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That subtitle basically says what needs to be said.  Jennifer Berry Hawes gives us an even-handed look at the horror in Charleston on June 17, 2015.  An atrocity that, for a moment in time and shared grief, appeared to unite us in a complete reversal of Dylann Roof’s avowed hope for race war.  Nine innocent lives are lost at historic Mother Emmanuel, and there is a tenth, lost but not innocent:  the shooter, lost to hatred.  Ms. Hawes movingly recounts the anguish of the families involved, and willingly recognizes that, as human beings, we are all flawed.  In the aftermath, there are those who inspire us with forgiveness, others who struggle, family quarrels, and church schisms because, well . . . humans, you know.  The book offers no blinding insights or solutions to our ongoing struggles, but rather, it serves to remind us of the healing power of forgiveness and, for those who believe, the grace of God.  Oh, wait, did I say no insights or solutions?  Could be I was wrong.  A thoughtful read.

Out today, June 4, from St. Martin's Press. 

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.
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It was about fifteen years ago that a stranger came to church and after worship service was directed to the young adult Sunday School class. He sat quietly during the discussion. Then he spoke up, asking what the church believed about a divisive social issue. There was a stunned silence for a few seconds before I was inspired to answer.

I explained the official denomination's Social Principles. And I explained the wide range of personal beliefs that our community included. As we broke up, the man asked to see the pastor and asked him the same question.

The pastor was my husband. He explained the church doctrine and he gave his personal belief. The man nodded and said it was clear that the church was under the leadership of Satan.

He was a quiet-spoken man and I do not recall any high emotion from his face or voice as he told us that he would return the following Sunday to proclaim to the world that this was a church lead by Satan.

My husband conferred with church leaders who reported the incident to the city police. They knew this man and said he was likely 'off his meds.' Shockingly, another call came in from Washington D. C., for this man had publically confronted a state Senator who was a member of the congregation.

It was a fretful week. I was concerned that the man would return through the open doors and wreak havoc. Would he be violent? Would he have a gun? I pictured him walking up the aisle of the church, backlit by the summer sunshine coming in through the open double doors. 

Sunday came and the police arrived and kept the man across the street.

As the man shouted his condemnation, our church family drew strength and solidarity, from the teenagers to our septuagenarian WWII veteran whose wife restrained him from crossing the street.

Churchs have conflicts and splits and bickering and disagreements. They are human institutions and filled with imperfect people. But the idea of a stranger entering and threatening lives is appalling. Yet it happens too often. Recently, there have been attacks on African American churches and a synagogue. It happened this past week in Sri Lanka.

Our places of worship should be--are expected to be--safe havens for the church community and for the strangers who they welcome. 

Jennifer Berry Hawes wrote Grace Will Lead Us Home to "convey the sheer scope of devastation that mass tragedies sow in the lives of everyday people.

The Charleston Church Massacre is a haunting tragedy. A stranger came to a Bible Study and murdered nine people. The reason Dylann Roof gave for his crime was that he "had to" do it. Indoctrinated by white supremacist website propaganda, Roof felt propelled to do something to reverse integration.

The impact on the personal lives of the congregation was devastating. Hawes tells the story of the survivors and the families of the deceased; we get to know them as people we care about.

For these people of faith, forgiveness is a Christian requirement they took seriously, forgiving Dylann Roof. What did that cost them to say those words! And what freedom was gained in letting go?

The narrative power of the book was overwhelming, even if sad and disturbing. Set within the larger picture, I learned about Charleston's history of slavery, the birth and decline of Emmanuel AME Church, the history of racism and the backlash against segregation. It took this tragedy to retire the Confederate flag from the courthouse. The portrait of Dylann Roof was mystifying. His social intelligence allowed him to manipulate his parents and yet he could not make friends and avoided eye contact. Was he autistic? 

The massacre was horrific and tragic. And I was sorely disappointed by the lack of compassion and support offered from the AME church leadership. As Emmanuel's pastor was a victim, an interim pastor was appointed. His abuse of power was unimaginable. 

Grace Will Lead Us Home is a moving portrayal of a community in crisis and recovery.

I received an egalley from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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Devastating, heartbreaking, such senseless crimes we see today.
Yet through it all we have reached out, held each other, comforted one another, and shown that evil will not be tolerated nor welcome.
On 6-17-15 a young white man walked into Emmanual AME Church in S. Carolina to an evening bible study. Within minutes he created a false sense of belonging among the 12 unsuspecting victims who would be killed instantly by Dylann Roof using 88 bullets, a pistol, and a hope of creating a race war.
Instead he was given the power of God, forgiveness, repentance for his sins, and the love of fellow parishioners who lost their loved ones.
How this small town community picked up, how they created unity, how they empowered one another is the power of God and all that the church and the holy grounds provided them.
The ending with President Obama and the singing of Amazing Grace wiped me out and placed me in that room with them all holding hands and bowing my head for god's grace.
It's god's grace that the fallen received that day and they are in heaven but they will never be forgotten.
Such a sad yet powerful reminder of the need to be united in a common cause rather than divided.
Slavery has been abolished but many hold the pain within. A hidden reminder of just how cruel a nation can become when in the wrong hands.
Thank you to Jennifer, the publisher, NetGalley for this ARC in exchange for this honest review.
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