The doors to Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church reopened Sunday to an exodus of people undeterred by the murderous efforts of a gunman fueled by anti-Black rhetoric — faith and strength, even when splinted with broken hearts, proved more durable than hate.
It’s what Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor would have wanted. It’s what she stood for, according to her first cousin, Rev. Waltrina Middleton. That message of resilience in the face of historic White terror against Black places of worship is likely the same one the slain reverend would have delivered, Middleton told NewsOne.
“She is a woman of faith, a very devout woman of God. She lived her life to be a servant of God. She was an inspiration to us, even if you did not share the same convictions,” Middleton said.
Sadly, Doctor, along with eight other victims, perished in an attack on the storied church last Wednesday. The gunman, identified as 21-year-old Dylann Roof, reportedly told authorities his racial bias against African-Americans propelled the massacre. But even with mounting evidence of Roof’s supremacist sentiment, the FBI has been slow to label the crime domestic terrorism; a Justice Department investigation is expected to determine if the shooting was a hate crime.
Doctor’s ability to forgive as a woman of God is sobering in the wake of the massacre. High school drop-out Roof sat in Doctor’s prayer meeting an hour before his attack, likely sharing the thoughts of the nine souls that were taken away last week, though it’s unlikely he agreed. It’s not hard to imagine that Doctor, a woman whose willingness to engage with those who subscribed to convictions opposing hers, would have sat with Roof to discuss his own views.
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” Felicia Sanders, the mother of victim Tywanza Sanders told Roof during his bond hearing. “You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts.”
Middleton, who grew up alongside Doctor, says those are the sentiments felt from her family as well.
“I think that obviously it’s very painful for us. I think that we’re still in a state of shock and disbelief that such a tragedy has come upon our family,” Middleton, who serves at the United Church of Christ National Minister for Youth Advocacy and Leadership in Ohio, told NewsOne.
“Her children are wounded because their mom was their best friend.”
Doctor, the mother of four girls – Gracyn, Kaylin, Hali and Czana – instilled a passion for education, adventure, and individuality in her “four amazing girls,” Middleton said.
“They miss her sorely,” Middleton said. “She is their cheerleader, their best friend and their world. They will never, ever get over this. But we will support them on the path of healing, we will continue to walk with them and keep her spirit alive.”
Middleton, who says she and her beloved cousin come from a long line of reverends, told NewsOne that falling back on prayer and faith when all seems lost is exactly what Doctor would have done.
“She was always the one who led us in prayer and song,” she said of her cousin, who possessed both powerful oratory skills and a sweet singing voice. “We used to tease her for being an old soul because all of us wanted to misbehave, but she was the one that made sure that we did the right thing,” Middleton said. “She embodied the spirit of the elders.”
That’s why Middleton’s heart sank on Wednesday, June 17, after the first shots rang out and police responded to a call at the church. She knew her cousin, a servant to God, would be in the place of worship.
Middleton called her phone, hoping the voicemail box she kept reaching was because Doctor’s phone was on silent during the prayer meeting. She and family members who called tried to reconcile that Doctor was fine. Maybe she misplaced her cell phone? Maybe she can’t hear it? But Middleton feared the worst.
“She never was really one that would answer her phone,” she said, “But I kept thinking ‘this is the one time I really wish you would answer.’”
Doctor never answered.
“Even speaking about it now, it just does not seem real,” Middleton told NewsOne.
The wounds are fresh and surreal, but Middleton is determined that the same faith and prayer that carried Doctor will sustain the family during this difficult time. But she does acknowledge that the same will not suffice to address the issue of “racialized violence” that took away her cousin.
During Roof’s bond hearing, Charleston County Magistrate James Gosnell Jr. urged the families of the victims to support the family of the accused gunman as well. The judge, who has since been replaced after it was revealed he used a racial epithet in the courtroom more than a decade ago, also referred to Roof’s family as “victims.” One by one, family members stepped up to deliver a shared message of forgiveness to Roof, who, because he appeared in court via video feed, could not see their anguished faces.
The judge’s insistence that people consider the family of the accused gunman, paired with what seems like the fight to segue the conversation of race into one of gun violence, shows a loss of focus that is not lost on Middleton. Praying that racism will change is not enough.
“Forgiveness and reconciliation can only begin when there is an acknowledgement of the wrong and injustice that is taking place,” she said. “This is deeply rooted in acts of racialized violence. It’s imperative that we address this culture of violence and reality of racism. If we can’t address those issues, we will continue to mourn the loss of Black and Brown bodies.”
And with President Barack Obama’s recent acknowledgement that racism and slavery are still a part of the nation’s DNA, it’s the hope of many that the contentious relationship between Blacks and the country that at one time enslaved them will finally improve.
“We have to be bold and say racism is alive in America,” Middleton said. “If not, those nine lives will be in vain.”