Updated: May 31, 2019
I felt like I had lived the entirety of the saga that began the night of June 17, 2015, when a lone stranger walked into a Wednesday night Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church. That night, the night that the shooter carved out his own space in infamy by shattering the lives of nine of God's faithful, I was just blocks away, spending the evening at my family's downtown Charleston home. As soon as word of the tragedy spread, I went to work on the story, work that didn't truly stop until he was sentenced to death a year and a half later.
In that time, I felt like I got to know the families of those who became known worldwide as the Charleston Nine, those whose lives had been snuffed out by a man filled with hate and loathing. Sitting through weeks of preliminary hearings and the trial that followed, I felt like I understood their stories, their grief, their yearning to know why their lives had been allowed to be altered by this tremendous loss. During the days on end of brutally raw and painful testimony from the men and women who had suffered the kind of loss that hopefully most of us will never know, I sat among other reporters, pecking away at our laptops in an attempt to chronicle the history playing out before us.
We all had pieces of the story. But only one of us, through untold hours of diligence, has truly gotten her arms around the full picture of Emanuel, of the realities of the families, their struggles and what the whole awful circumstance has meant not only for South Carolina but for the world. Her name is Jennifer Berry Hawes, and her book - Grace Will Lead Us Home- is, simply put, amazing.
Masterfully - and in a way that, if you've ever read any of her work, is beautifully familiar - Jen tells the story of Emanuel, of each person involved, from the victims and their loved ones to the shooter and his own disturbing and sad circumstances. Like no other writer has been able to do, she truly lived and breathed this story that is now part of history, portraying the difficult realities the massacre caused in the lives of each person directly affected by it and delving into how a sacred space that had been a home base for these nine people nearly fell apart in the aftermath of their deaths. Some are stories of growth after tragedy. Some are tales of sorrow and continued darkness. In any event, Jen has preserved the truth of Emanuel and what we can learn from it in a way that is incomparable.
If I'm being honest, I have to make a confession: Jen Berry Hawes is my favorite journalist. Period. She has been for some time, though this is the first time I have ever publicly said it or written it. I've admired her for many years and look up to her as a journalist, woman and human being. I've been reluctant to say it for fear of offending many of the other amazing writers in my field - especially in the South Carolina press corps - but she deserves to be singled out. She gets to write the big picture stuff and go into the details that are limited for a wire service writer like me. But rather than being jealous of her - and I certainly could be - I have always silently and privately cheered her on, and I've been so proud of everything she's accomplished in her career at The Post and Courier. Her stories rip at your heart and teach lessons that are lifelong.
Grace Will Lead Us Home is no exception. Though I lived through the same trial, in reading the book I learned, cried, smiled and couldn't put it down.
Simply, I want everyone to read it. For better or worse, I had a front seat to history in what happened at Emanuel, and my duties as a journalist and South Carolinian compelled me to share that story with the world. But what Jen has done with this book, which is widely available June 4, is above and beyond any reflection anyone else could produce. I'm honored to call Jen a colleague and friend, and I hope that you will learn from and appreciate her incredible work, as I have.
You can preorder her book at this link: https://amzn.to/2XeoXdD
And you should.