Light in the Darkness

Photography by Libby Williams

By Shelley Hill Young

Polly Sheppard remembers his boots – how dirty they were – as she watched them approach her hiding spot underneath the table. You’ve no doubt heard the horrific story. Dylann Roof had already shot nine members of the Emanuel AME family who had gathered that Wednesday night at the church for a Bible study.  

Sheppard continued to pray. Roof pointed his Glock at her and asked if she had been shot. She answered honestly: “No.” He snarled, “I’m not going to shoot you. I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.”  

Sheppard has told the story of June 17 many times now. It’s not a story she wants to retell, to relive. But she says she has to tell that story to get to the one she wants people to hear – the story about how God was in the room with them that Wednesday evening, how he is real and he will answer your prayers.

“He thought I was going to tell a different story,” Sheppard says. “I tell God’s story.”

The story Sheppard tells focuses on the power of prayer and forgiveness.

“It’s something I have to do now,” she says. “It’s a new job, one I didn’t train for. I’m not a talker. I think he’s speaking for me.”

But at that moment when Roof pointed his gun at her, Sheppard says she knew she was going to die.

“I thought he was going to shoot me anyway,” she says.

But 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, who had already been shot, raised to his elbow and asked, “Why are you doing this?” Roof shot him again. 

Sheppard says Sanders took the attention away from her and his mother, Felicia Sanders, who lay near him. He is the reason she and Felicia survived, Sheppard says. 

A flip phone had fallen on the floor near Polly’s hand. Though Roof was still in the building, she tried to call 911. The phone made a strange noise and she shut it quickly. The second time she tried, the dispatcher answered. “God was helping me greatly,” she says. 

When the dispatcher asked how many shots have been fired, Sheppard says, “I don’t know, there’s so many.” On the recording, she can be heard praying, “Oh, God please help me… Help us, Lord, please.” She stayed on the phone for five minutes answering questions about what the shooter looked like, what he was wearing, how he entered the building. 

Once she heard a door shut, Sheppard, a retired nurse, says she checked the pulses of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and two women.

When the police arrived, they escorted Sheppard, Felicia Sanders and Sanders’ granddaughter to the nearby Embassy Suites Hotel. Pinckney’s wife and one of their daughters, who were in the church office, also survived. 

Sheppard, who attended Emanuel for more than 35 years, hadn’t wanted to stay for the Bible study that night. She had been at the church for meetings most of the day. She is diabetic and needed to eat. But her close friend Myra Thompson, who was killed, was leading the Bible study for the first time. Sheppard sat at the back of the basement room, hoping to sneak out early.

“It was an eerie feeling in there,” she recalls. “It was a quiet like you’ve never heard before. It was still, very still.” 

She remembers there was a bright, bright light in the basement room. “It was almost like we were in a twilight zone.”

The light, she says, helped her remain calm. Sheppard knows she was probably in shock. But she also knows something else for certain: “The Lord had to be in there with us. Had to be.” 

Sheppard did not attend the bond hearing held two days after the shooting – when Nadine Collier, the daughter of Ethel Lance, who was killed, told Roof, “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you.” Felicia was there, too, telling Roof, “May God have mercy on you.” 

“I wasn’t there. I wasn’t ready yet,” Sheppard says. “I didn’t want to talk. I stayed quiet.”  

There was a deep, deep sadness. And there was guilt.

“We lost nine church members, the cream of the crop,” Polly says. “I ask [God], ‘Why did you have to take those nine?’” 

She says she wanted to give families time to grieve. She needed to grieve. She attended seven funerals, but she never went to a grave site. The services offered some closure, she says. 

It took a while to forgive. 

She spent a lot of time thinking and praying. She says she told herself, “’Felicia lost her son. If she can forgive him, so can you. Why are you being so hard-hearted?’ It was easy after that. I started smiling again after that.”  

To prove her point, Polly points to a photo taken of her with President Barack Obama at Pinckney’s funeral on June 26, when Obama sang “Amazing Grace.” Look at my smile, she says, “It’s as phony as a $3 dollar bill.”  Her lips are closed tight. It’s not the more relaxed, natural expression she wears today. 

About three months later, she says Felicia came to her home and got her. “That’s when I began to talk,” Sheppard says.  

Sheppard was the final witness to testify at Roof’s trial in December 2016. She identified Roof as the shooter and heard her 911 call played for the jury. Less than a month later, Polly was getting on a bus to go home when she was called back to the courtroom because the jury had reached its verdict in the penalty phase after three hours of deliberation. She says the death sentence didn’t bring much comfort.  

“I felt sorry for him,” Sheppard says. “I don’t believe in the death penalty. It’s just another death. It’s not going to bring anybody back.” 

That night at the Emanuel Bible study, the Emanuel members read from Mark 4: 13-20. “Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” 

Roof, Sheppard says, is “one of those seeds that fell on rocky ground and didn’t get roots.” 

Most recently, Sheppard participated in the documentary “Emanuel,” which is being executive produced by St. Matthews native Viola Davis and basketball star Steph Curry. The documentary focuses on the story of the families, the survivors and forgiveness. She’s attended several of the screenings in New York. 

Forgiveness, she says, is a choice. “It’s up to you.” 

“If you pray and ask God for forgiveness, he will forgive you,” Sheppard says. “You have to forgive others for him to forgive you. If you don’t, it’s like acid on a battery, it builds up. You have to forgive in order to heal.” 

It’s also a process that takes time, she says.

“Some things you have to turn over to the Lord and pray about it,” she says. “There are some things you can’t handle, some things God has to handle.” 

Sheppard was deeply saddened when she heard about the shooting death of 11 people at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October.  

“I said, ‘Oh, Lord, not again.’”  

Sheppard – who has four grown boys, seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren– finds comfort and strength from her family, the kindness of people and words of local pastors. And she seeks purpose. She’s on the board of the Mother Emanuel Memorial Foundation, which is charged with managing the construction and fundraising for a memorial at the church.

Sheppard says she’s encouraged that the shooting has led more people in Charleston to confront the issue of race. She participates in a joint book club held between Mt. Zion AME Church and its neighbor, Grace Cathedral. Participants read a book focused on racial themes and discuss it. November’s book was “Dignity” by Donna Hicks.  

“We tell the truth there. We tell exactly what we feel. We talk to people and not at people.” 

When it all feels too heavy, Sheppard retreats to her safe place – a favorite chair in a small room in her home. 

“I just pray,” she says. “Prayer is the answer to everything.”