Charleston survivor comforts congregants
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Bound by tragedyConversing on forgiveness and healing

Charleston survivor comforts congregants

Unfortunately familiar path brings people together.

Polly Sheppard, a survivor of the Charleston church shooting, hugs Barry Werber, a survivor of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

Photo by Adam Reinherz
Polly Sheppard, a survivor of the Charleston church shooting, hugs Barry Werber, a survivor of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Hours after sundown on a quiet evening in Squirrel Hill, Polly Sheppard recounted how three and a half years earlier on a hot night in South Carolina, a 21-year-old white supremacist gunman spared her after killing nine African Americans at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. It was immediately after Bible study when he opened fire, and with the dead and soon-to-be beside her, Sheppard retreated beneath a table as the murderer approached.

“I’m going to leave you here to tell the story,” she said he told her.

The silent few who clung to Sheppard’s words on Monday, Jan. 7, included members of New Light Congregation, survivors of the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building and loved ones of the deceased. Of the 11 victims of the massacre, three were from New Light.

The private program, held in partnership with The Faith and Politics Institute, a Washington, D.C., organization that brings political leaders together, was an opportunity to question “where you are on your own faith journey,” said New Light’s Rabbi Jonathan Perlman.

Understandably, people find themselves at different points on that journey, but what Sheppard offers is a model, said Barbara Caplan, New Light’s co-president. “She gave people a glimpse of what could be in the future.”

In an hour-long address that favored conversation over lecture, Sheppard emphasized the importance of counseling, forgiveness and faith.

“You have to be able to release it,” she said. “You can forgive or you can carry it with you and get ulcers.”

Though strong in her convictions, Sheppard wasn’t always a likely candidate to travel across the country lending comfort and expertise.

Prior to the church shooting, and even afterward, she was a shy member of the congregation who preferred cooking and cleaning to being featured, but “after about three years of sitting on it, I finally found my voice,” she said.

Sheppard still speaks in hushed tones, but her message resounds.

A questioner who survived the Oct. 27 shooting asked, “Where was God?”

Sheppard replied, “He didn’t escape you. He was right there with you. I would be lying to you if I said my faith wasn’t shaken, but all I had to do was rely on His word.”

To the person whose loved one survived the shooting and wished to know when normalcy would resume, Sheppard said, “There’s no timetable, but stay in God’s word because grace and mercy will come.”

Sheppard still suffers nightmares. Occasionally she wakes up in a sweat, she said. Still, “God has a plan for me. It’s not the plan I asked for. I’m not always happy to do it, but this is what He wants.”

Hearing such words were “enlightening,” said Jacob Notovitz, a New Light board member.

Joan Mooney, president of The Faith and Politics Institute, described a natural connection between survivors.

Fellow survivors of mass shootings Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light Congregation Polly Sheppard of Charleston, South Carolina, shared thoughts on healing and faith during a January 7 program.
Photo by Adam Reinherz

Barry Werber, who survived the Oct. 27 shooting, agreed.

“When you go through the same sort of hell you come out the same way,” he said, “but I’m going to have a hell of a time forgiving the gentleman, and I say gentleman lightly.”

“It’s hard to move forward. We are still suffering and still looking for a way to move forward,” added Stephen Cohen, New Light’s co-president.

At evening’s end, attendees prepared to leave the Eisner Commons in Congregation Beth Shalom. Perlman invited everyone to return for Sunday morning services and breakfast. 

“The man who led it, the man who made the eggs and the man who served the eggs are gone,” said the rabbi.

Silence ensued.

For a moment all was still, until a room full of smiles emerged when a congregant responded, “If there are no eggs, why are we paying $3 dollars for breakfast?”PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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