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Reflecting on the Charleston church massacre, one year later

June 14, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
A year ago this week, nine black churchgoers were gunned down inside Charleston’s historic Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church by alleged white supremacist Dylan Roof, who faces the death penalty if convicted. Among those slain was the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Last winter, the Rev. Betty Deas took over as pastor, and joins Jeffrey Brown to reflect on the tragedy and its aftermath.

GWEN IFILL: Next, we revisit the city of Charleston, South Carolina, which suffered through its own mass shooting one year ago this week.

Nine people were gunned down inside e-mail Emanuel AME Church, including its pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Alleged white supremacist Dylann Roof was charged on multiple counts, including murder and hate crimes. He could face the death penalty.

This past winter, the Reverend Betty Deas Clark took over as Emanuel’s pastor.

Jeffrey Brown spoke with her recently, before this week’s shootings. She traveled to Orlando yesterday to support families there and to speak out in favor of gun control.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rev. Dr. Clark, thank you for letting us come visit.

REV. BETTY DEAS CLARK, Emanuel AME Church: Thank you for coming.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, one year later, how is your congregation faring?

REV. BETTY DEAS CLARK: Well, I would like to think that they’re processing, but yet still grieving. It’s a process that may take years, but it’s good to see signs of them being able to smile, to laugh again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right away, of course, there were expressions of forgiveness to an extent that I think amazed many in the nation and around the world.

Is that still the sense that is there, the forgiveness, or are there other emotions involved as well?

REV. BETTY DEAS CLARK: Well, there are an array of emotions. But forgiveness is more than an emotion. It is a choice. And so while we confess forgiveness, we yet still have feelings of many different degrees, and that’s OK.


REV. BETTY DEAS CLARK: It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK. It’s OK to be tearful. It’s OK to sometimes want to pull away from the world and just be by yourself. It’s OK, because the road and the path for grieving, it’s different for every individual.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a pastor, I wonder, do you think, how could this happen, where is God, where was God at this moment?

REV. BETTY DEAS CLARK: Well, my first response was just as they were in Bible study on that Wednesday night, so was I. And so I guess my first line of questioning was, why them? And then it was to say, it could have been me.

But to say where was God, I never asked that question, simply because I truly believe that God is omniscient. In other words, he’s everywhere at the same time. And I believe, that if God allowed it, he had a reason for doing so.

JEFFREY BROWN: This congregation and you yourself have spoken out about gun control issues in the aftermath, correct?


JEFFREY BROWN: And what would you like to see happen?

REV. BETTY DEAS CLARK: Well, I would like to see situations such as the case with Dylann Roof and not having a proper complete background check, I would like to see that come to an end.

I would like to see that loop closed, because it has already shown us how dangerous it actually is, and can be again, until we do something positive and permanently about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dylann Roof himself now faces the death penalty. Do you yourself have feelings about that?

REV. BETTY DEAS CLARK: I never considered myself neither judge nor jury.

But what I see is a young man who — someone once asked me, if I were to meet him, if he were to ask to have an audience with me, what would I say. I would tell him Jesus loves him. I would tell him that there is life beyond June 17. And that’s what I would say.

I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to meet his aunt. She came to me, and she was a little timid, probably wondering, what would I say and how would I react? And I saw that she was crying. And I reached out to her to give her a hug, and she stepped back, and she said, “Well let me tell you this first.” She said, “I’m Dylann Roof’s aunt.”

I said, “But you still need a hug. Can I hug you?” And she said yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then you talked?

REV. BETTY DEAS CLARK: And then we talked, and then we prayed. We did.

JEFFREY BROWN: I asked you at the beginning how your congregation is doing a year later.

What about the city, the culture, all that that provoked about race relations in this country? Where do you see things?

REV. BETTY DEAS CLARK: Well, while it may have provoked the need to deal with race relations, it also brought to surface how loving, how caring and how united this city really is, because, in the aftermath of June 17, the community joined together, walked together, prayed together, worshiped together.

And so, while we do have a way to go, we have come a long way.

JEFFREY BROWN: You feel that?

REV. BETTY DEAS CLARK: I honestly do.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Rev. Dr. Betty Clark, thank you so much.