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Trip Of Healing: Tree Of Life Congregants, Family Members Seek Answers From S.C. Church Shooting Survivors

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (KDKA) -- People travel from all over the world to Charleston, S.C., in part, because there is a rich history there. Recently, a group of Pittsburghers came to Charleston, but they came to make history.

Charleston is one of the most historic towns in the south – from the revolutionary war and the slave uprisings led by Charleston's son Denmark Veasy.

It is recent history, however, that brought a unique group of Pittsburghers to the city.

Oct. 27, 2018, is a date that Pittsburgh will never forget. Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in a hate-filled rage and allegedly shot and killed 11 people. Three of the victims were from the New Light Congregation. It was an act that is hard for anyone to come to terms with, especially family members left behind.

Carol Black lost her brother in the shooting.

"At this point in time, I'm not prepared to forgive. I'm still on the angry side of things," she said.

Her sister Debi Slavin feels the loss as well.

"I know that time does do some healing, and it just hasn't been long enough for me," Slavin said.

In the weeks that followed the tragic shooting, family, friends and congregants grappled with grief and mourning, looking for answers and finding few places to turn. Yet, 650 miles away sits "Mother" Emanuel AME Church, a congregation that knows firsthand how it feels to have hate enter a religious space.

In June of 2015, Dylann Roof entered the basement Bible study at the church and shot and killed nine members of their church. Polly Shepard was there.

"I was under the table looking up, and when he got to me he said, 'Shut up. Did I shoot you?' I said no, and he's said, 'I'm not going to. I'm going to leave you here to tell the story,'" Shepard said.

After three years, Shepard is able to share with the members of New Light her thoughts on hurt, healing and forgiveness.

"I told them, you have to forgive. It's a choice. Either you forgive or you don't, but if you carry it with you, there's no healing. It's like acid on a battery. Once it builds up, the car won't move," she said.

The trip to Charleston was the idea of Dr. Peg Durachko. Her husband, Dr. Richard Gottfried, died in the Tree of Life shooting. This was her first trip since her husband's death.

"Leaving was very difficult because I am travelling without my husband, so that was difficult," she said. "But I remember, what really struck me was the ability of the people who were in that church to forgive so readily. That intrigued me, and it actually drew me, because I wanted to learn forgiveness."

This group of Pittsburghers found their way through Charleston in search of answers and in hopes of finding some form of peace. Durachko wanted to learn about short-term healing and having to face a court process somewhere down the road.

"I would like to also learn a little more about the healing that has taken place from 2015, which is when the tragedy occurred here up until now. And maybe even hear a little more about how the people who had to be at the hearing, in court, how they dealt with the emotions and the heartache that they had to revisit," Durachko said.

Watch Part 2 of Lynne Hayes-Freeland's report --


For Black, the Sunday morning worship service at the very church were nine people died was a focal point.

"Get a chance to blend those two congregations and, you know, we actually see where it happened. It's still kind of raw for us," Black said.

Rev. Eric Manning was not the Pastor at Emanuel when the shooting happened, but he has been a big part of the healing process. They welcomed the visitors from Pittsburgh, while recognizing their own healing is still a work in progress.

"It brought back, from Mother Emanuel's perspective, what we went through just about four years ago, and our road to recovery is still taking place. You see yet another congregation who's just starting out. Our hearts go out to them because we know the road is long," Manning said.

The Pittsburghers were welcomed to the service in song, beginning with the traditional Negro National Anthem.

"Those from the New Light Congregation in Pittsburgh, give them a hand," Manning said.

The message that Sunday dealt with forgiveness and trusting God. But then, a special moment, that touched these two congregations – in a way that no one anticipated.

"We ask them to come. We ask them to come," Manning said.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

The members of New Light were invited to come to the front of the church and line the alter. Then members of the Emanuel AME Congregation were invited to surround them, both physically and in love.

"I want you all to understand, this congregation understands what you have gone through. What you're going through. You are not alone in this journey. We will be here. We will be there. All you need to do is pick up the phone. Call us any hour of the night, any hour of the day," Manning said.

As these two congregations, two victims of hatred, came together, they began to hug, they began to cry, and for both, there was what seemed to be a release of pain and hurt that had been kept inside for a long time.

Debi Slavin felt it.

"Being surrounded by all the love and support was so healing, so healing," she said.

So did Carol Black.

"The outpouring of love was just totally amazing, and I feel like I accomplished what I came here to do, which is hug the people in this church and they were just awesome," she said.

Peg Durachko is still looking for answers but this was a start. KDKA's Lynne Hayes-Freeland asked how her heart felt after the emotion of the service. She said her heart was still broken but she felt closer to the people in Charleston now, and it was beautiful.

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