Last Wednesday the Noble Room was packed with GA and Brunswick students opting to forgo eating lunch with friends and instead hear from “Miss Polly” Sheppard and Rose Simmons, two members of Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, SC.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, a white supremacist walked into a bible study at Emanuel Church and murdered nine African Americans. Miss Polly was one of three survivors. Simmons’ father, the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., was one of those killed at the church. Both women were in the Connecticut area to present the documentary, Emanuel: The Untold Story of Victims and Survivors of the Charleston Church Shooting, and to share their story of faith, healing, and forgiveness.
Students were visibly moved as they watched the first 20 minutes of the documentary and then heard the women discuss their experiences on that night and in the aftermath of the shooting. “Forgiveness is a process,” Miss Polly told the students, who found it incomprehensible that these women were able to forgive the shooter for what he had done to them and their community. They also said that they have been able to rebuild and strengthen their community through initiatives like the Illumination Project which was designed to bring together people from all parts of the community—citizens, academia, business leaders, faith-based organizations, police officers, elected officials, and media—in an effort to create a safe, open, and respectful environment.
Students took advantage of their time with Simmons and Miss Polly to ask about their thoughts on everything from gun control to how they were able to maintain their faith after enduring such a horrific event. One student admitted that with mass shootings occurring almost daily in the U.S., she had become somewhat desensitized to the events. Miss Polly empathized, noting that “becoming desensitized to these events is the tragedy of something that is repeated over and over again.” When asked how we fix the problems of hate crimes and gun violence, Simmons said, “We must find a way to communicate with one another across racial lines, across social and economic boundaries. We need to look up from our phones and learn to speak to the person next to us. We need to vote and change laws. Then, we being to make some changes.”
There’s no doubt that Simmons and Miss Polly are doing their part to make a difference.