Surviving the Charleston Church Massacre

In this excerpt from Grace Will Lead Us Home by Jennifer Berry Hawes, survivor of the Charleston Church Massacre Felicia Sanders, who played dead with her young granddaughter as the gunman killed nine people, receives critical support from a police lieutenant, fellow survivor Polly Sheppard and then-Gov. Nikki Haley.

Jennifer Berry Hawes
7-minute read

After the shooting, the coroner’s office staff had taken care to return salvageable items found on the victims’ bodies and in the fellowship hall. One woman had found and cleaned Felicia’s purse. She was grateful for the woman’s efforts, but what Felicia really wanted back was her Bible.

“You don’t want it,” the woman had cautioned.

“Yes, I do want it.”

“We don’t think you want it ...”

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

“You can keep everything,” Felicia said. “I want my Bible.”

That Bible, however, had been tossed in the trash, thrown away with other things that seemed too damaged to return to victims’ families.

When police Lieutenant Jennie Antonio caught wind of that conversation, she didn’t dismiss Felicia’s request as impossible. A devoted Catholic, she understood what the Bible meant to the grieving mother. She also had been working with a national FBI rapid response team that flew in to help local police agencies and victim advocates handle mass casualty events. The team’s members had dealt with tragedies at places like Sandy Hook Elementary and brought with them critical lessons learned — including that many of the devastated parents had wanted their children’s personal effects, like backpacks and drawings, no matter how damaged. The FBI team also had discovered a Texas company that could salvage even the most blood-soaked items.

There sat a dark leather-bound Bible soaked in blood. A bullet had pierced its pages.

So, five days after the shooting, Antonio had called an FBI counterpart and soon drove to the first of two storage buildings that housed biohazards that cleaning crews at Emanuel had thrown away. There, they hauled out several big plastic bins that contained the life, and death, of nine people. In suffocating heat, with gloved hands, Antonio had rummaged through sticky papers that clung to what looked like a dark brownish-red bed sheet. She had peered beneath it. And there sat a dark leather-bound Bible soaked in blood. A bullet had pierced its pages.

She opened the cover, then plied apart pages. Stuck between two, a little torn-off piece of what might have been a receipt bore a name: Felicia Sanders.

Antonio had carefully wrapped it up and sent it to the company in Texas. Two months later, a box appeared in her mail.

Antonio soon drove down the winding road to Felicia’s home and knocked on the Sanderses’ front door. Felicia greeted her. Though her eyes were fogged with grief, Felicia managed to smile in welcome. Antonio sensed the tremendous effort it took for the survivor to greet the endless stream of people needing to talk with her for the investigation, random community members who suddenly wanted to know her, and the large circles of family and friends who stopped by to visit. She decided to make it quick.

As they walked inside, Antonio held out the box.

Felicia took it from her. She opened it, gently tugging aside tissue paper inside. There sat her black Bible, what she called her Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. She opened the front cover. A pinkish hue now tinted the gossamer paper inside.

A tear, barely visible now, marked where a bullet had pierced the pages. Yet, despite a gunshot, the blood, and the cleansing, God’s words still stared back at her in clear and bold black letters.

God was still with her.

Polly visited Felicia at her house one day. Friends for twenty years, they talked about God and the church, good and evil, and their many spiritual questions following the terrible ordeal. As they spoke about that Bible study and the great unlikelihood they would be alive after a man had fired more than seventy bullets all around them, Polly remembered an Old Testament story about a fire. It told of three Jewish men cast into a fiery furnace because they refused to worship a golden statue. The trio had held steadfastly to God in the face of death by burning, and sure enough, they walked unharmed through the flames.

From beneath a table, Polly had prayed out loud to the same God. She could still hear the blasts of endless gunshots around her and the sound of Roof reloading over and over. Yet, not a single bullet struck Polly, Felicia, or her granddaughter.

“We were in the fire,” Polly said softly, glancing at the floor.

God’s words still stared back at her in clear and bold black letters.

“And only thing I got was a sting on my legs,” Felicia added. She still could feel the heat of bullets blasting so close to her. “Three of us came out without a scratch.”

But what did it all mean? Felicia explained her questions to her therapist, seeking guidance.

“I can help you with the medical part of it,” the woman cautioned. She could prescribe medication and guide Felicia through therapies. “But I cannot help you with the spiritual side. Do you know anybody who would help you with that part?”

Felicia didn’t. She used to seek out Aunt Susie and several of the five ministers now dead. Who could she turn to now?

The Rev. Norvel Goff, the church’s interim pastor, had visited her before the funerals and not since. The bishop had never come. She desperately needed a person of the cloth to say, “God didn’t leave you. He’s still with you.” That was all she wanted, an assurance that God would pull her through this, but she didn’t know where to look. Goff was a stranger to her — and she to him. Felicia also didn’t like to draw attention by demanding things for herself, not even a visit from her clergy.

So, one day she called Andy Savage, her attorney and increasingly close friend. Andy listened. Then he reminded her of how she had felt at Second Presbyterian Church when they visited seeking overflow space for her son Tywanza and Aunt Susie’s funeral. She had said the place felt, somehow, right. He would call its pastor, Cress Darwin, for her.

Felicia continued to yearn to hear from her church leaders, although none came to her home. While she waited, Governor Haley called instead with a surprising request.

“Can I come see you?”

Haley needed to meet Felicia. She needed to talk to her in person and let her know how sorry she was for all that she’d endured. So much well-placed attention had gone to those killed that she worried about those who had lived. It was selfish on some level, Haley knew. But she simply needed to know that Felicia was okay.

She also wanted to meet the woman who’d forgiven the racist killer. Haley, herself a Christian, wondered: Could I do that?

Felicia invited her over.

A few days later, Haley rode in a plain black SUV with two staffers and her security detail. They turned down a long, two-lane residential street, passing house after house, including one with a Confederate flag hanging on its porch. Then they turned down the Sanderses’ long driveway, nestled by two big live oak trees.

Haley emerged from the SUV into the humid summer air, partly as the state’s governor, partly as a mother herself, mostly as someone worried about the woman inside the house who had survived something so unimaginable. She walked to the front steps and climbed onto a long front porch with a white rail. Felicia and Tyrone emerged from the front door.

Haley had attended Tywanza’s funeral. She had seen Felicia and Tyrone there and, later, at the ceremony to lower the flag. However, they hadn’t really met, not in a quiet way like this one. Felicia led her into a living room just inside the front door, toward a couch, two chairs, and photos of Tywanza. She asked Haley to please choose a seat. The governor sat down facing Felicia. Tyrone joined them.

Yet, beyond their overt graciousness, Haley felt a wall of suspicion, as if the couple wondered: Why was the governor here? Was she hoping to gain something from them?

Haley presented Felicia with a crisply folded American flag that had flown in honor of Tywanza above the State House, along with one of the nine pens she used to sign the bill lowering the Confederate flag. They began to relax a little. Felicia described how she couldn’t even hear gunshots on a TV show anymore, not without reliving those horrific moments.

Where Felicia seemed so sad and broken, Tyrone came across as edgy and hard. For a moment, the governor pondered two such different responses to grief.

Then she asked them to tell her more about Tywanza.

Felicia smiled widely. She described her son’s poetry, his jokes, his dreams. Tyrone, a wiry bald man with a commanding voice, admitted that he couldn’t stop listening to a Lion King song that reminded him of his baby boy. Tywanza was his Simba.

They spoke about their granddaughter, the huggy little girl who survived the shooting, and how hard they were trying to keep her life as normal as possible. Theirs was a house that had welcomed so many children over the years— their own, family members’, friends’, others’. Felicia wanted to love and rescue them all. But she hadn’t been able to save her own son.

When she cried, Haley handed her a tissue. When the governor cried, Felicia handed her one.

“Tell me how to help you,” Haley finally said.

Felicia looked back with the saddest eyes Haley had ever seen. Felicia’s answer had nothing to do with politics, not gun control or race relations or any of the things Haley typically heard. Instead, Felicia explained that they desperately needed spiritual guidance. They needed to know why their son had died in front of her, in a church, in their church, trying to protect them all. They needed to know God’s intentions in this tragedy.

They spoke for more than an hour before Haley felt it was time to go. She didn’t want to overstay her welcome. They said good-byes, and she stepped back onto the front porch. Haley had almost reached her SUV, her security detail still waiting in the driveway, when she heard Felicia’s voice behind her from the porch.

“I got to tell him I loved him,” she called. “And he told me he loved me, too.”

From GRACE WILL LEAD US HOME by Jennifer Berry Hawes. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Publishing Group.