I recently attended a conference in Charleston, South Carolina, of development and public relations professionals from Southern Baptist child care agencies. One of the speakers at that conference was Rev. Anthony Thompson, pastor of Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church of Charleston. That name may sound familiar to you.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a young white man, attended the Wednesday evening Bible study at the predominantly black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. An hour later, Roof pulled a concealed weapon and killed nine African-Americans as they prayed, including Myra Thompson, the wife of Rev. Thompson. This story soon reverberated around the world.
Thompson told us about that fateful night and the aftermath. After Roof was arrested, his bond hearing was open to the public. The courtroom was packed with grieving and angry family and church members. When the judge asked for comments from the family members of the victims, Thompson admitted he didn’t want to say anything. He just wanted to grieve alone.
But Thompson found himself standing up to address the court. His words stunned the world. “Son, I forgive you and my family forgives you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent! Repent and confess, and give your life to the One who matters the most: Christ! So that He can change it and change your ways. And no matter what happens to you, you will be okay. Do that, and you will be better off than you are right now.”
Thompson concluded by saying, “after I did that, I experienced God’s love! I experienced peace! For the first time, I knew and understood what it meant and felt like to experience the “…peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). God’s love freed my heart, soul and body of the burden of bitterness and anger. God healed me from the inside out. He took away all my burdens and granted me His peace!”
Many in the church and community still struggle to understand Rev. Thompson’s deliberate choice to forgive the racist murderer. But as Charlestonians witnessed this incredible act of forgiveness, something significant happened. Instead of the expected racial riots in the aftermath of the shooting, black and white leaders and residents united, coming together peaceably and even showing acts of selfless love.
Those of us at the conference sat in silence as Thompson told this heart-wrenching story and were once again reminded of the power of forgiveness and redemption.
This is a power that the children and teenagers at Missouri Baptist Children’s Home are told about on an almost-daily basis. Our kids are often bound by the events that have happened in their young lives. Many have been abused – physically, sexually and emotionally. They are full of anger, resentment and hopelessness. That is why we say that MBCH is a place for hope, healing and restoration.
While we teach our children about the love of God and the hope that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ, we also teach them that they cannot move beyond their past without forgiving those who have hurt and betrayed them. Honestly, just as many Charlestonians struggle to understand how Rev. Thompson and his family could forgive a murderer, our children struggle with giving forgiveness to those who do not deserve it.
Some of the most common questions our staff hear from our children is, “Can God really forgive me? Can God really set me free? Can God get my life to the place where I can forgive and get rid of all this anger?” They say things like “Horrible people have done horrible things to me in my life and I want to hate them. Can God forgive me for that?”
But when they understand how God can forgive the sins of the people who sent His Son to the cross, they begin to let go of their bitterness and slowly begin to offer forgiveness of their own. It is always gratifying when one of our kids comes to us and says, “I’ve learned about forgiveness and I’m forgiving my father (or mother) for the abuse.” And when they do that, it is like a big weight has been lifted off of them.
Healing begins when we can learn to forgive.