A year ago, nine people were murdered in the midst of a Wednesday night Bible study at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church. The horrific violence was swift, the deadly results, sudden. For relatives of the victims, the past year has brought journeys that are far more incremental. They are journeys of grief, uncertainty, resilience, and of discovering new ways to define "family." One of those families shared pieces of their journey with WFAE's Mark Rumsey.
It's a pleasant, early June morning as a colleague and I walk up to the two-story home on a winding, suburban street on Charlotte's north side. But, an awkward feeling goes with me. I'm about to meet three living victims of violence. They are a daughter, a sister and a niece.
Bethane is the younger sister of the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. She was among the nine parishioners killed at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015. As we settle in around a tall kitchen table, we're joined by Bethane's 19-year old daughter, Jillian, and Gracyn, age 23. Gracyn is the oldest of DePayne's four daughters. The household’s two resident dachshunds, now exiled to the backyard, still serve to help break the ice.
"They remind me of me and my sister," Bethane says of the dogs. "Sophie is very girlie, very particular. Nikki is hyper and everywhere - that was me as a kid. My sister was more reserved."
DePayne Middleton-Doctor was the middle child of three daughters born to the Rev. Leroy and Mrs. Frances Middleton. The girls grew up attending an African Methodist Episcopal church west of Charleston. Their father was an AME minister.
But when DePayne eventually discerned her own calling to ministry, it led her first to a Baptist organization, where she became an ordained reverend.
It wasn't until March of last year that she joined Charleston's historic "Mother Emanuel" church and pursued ministry credentials from the denomination of her childhood. As daughter Gracyn explains, “She had to pretty much go through the whole procedure again. So even though she was an ordained reverend, she has now become an ordained reverend in the AME church. That was what she was going through, so, on that Wednesday night - that was completed.”
The Wednesday night that Emanuel AME became a killing ground.
It’s Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Over the past year, it has annoyed Bethane Middleton-Brown when a media mention of the nine Charleston victims has failed to include the title "reverend" when referring to her sister.
“DePayne was an ordained minister long before she went to Emanuel AME Church, and once there - when she left this world, she was an ordained minister. I find that's the biggest pet peeve that I have. I want her title to be there, because she earned it,” says Bethane.
The Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor was 49 when she was killed. In addition to Gracyn, the tragedy left three other daughters without their mother: Kaylin, now 18; Hali,14; and 11-year old Czana.
Last fall, Gracyn began her senior year at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. Kaylin enrolled as a freshman at Johnson & Wales University. And, their Aunt Bethane went to work seeking, and eventually gaining, custody of the two younger sisters.
DePayne and her husband had divorced in 2012. Bethane was determined to keep her nieces together.
“She loved her nieces and nephews; she loved her children. She's the best big sister I could ever have. She never waited for me to ask for anything. I would get care packages, and my roommates would be jealous. That was her. She was just really very nurturing to me - very nurturing.” Bethane remembers.
One year Anniversary.
One year after the shooting, Gracyn says “the days are just kind of 'going.’”
“It didn't dawn on me at first, and then Hali asked if we were going to church. And we went,” and that's when I kind of realized, oh, it's getting closer, Bethane says. “So I go between sentimental and, just mood swings.”
Did something trigger that? Was it just being in church? How did that arrive with you?
There's a pause, as Bethane gathers herself before responding. Gracyn reaches with a reassuring touch to her aunt's arm.
“Just before you came I was already feeling very emotional, but…”
Bethane refers to Christmas Eve 2006, when her family was baptized.
“When I looked up in the balcony, my sister was there and she was looking down, smiling, and waving. She was real happy because that was something she wanted for awhile, that we would get back involved in church. So when I go to church, I try not to look in the balcony.”
Bethane explains that on a recent Sunday, something, maybe an "Amen" from the balcony of her home church in Charlotte, caught her attention. Then suddenly, at this reflective moment in our kitchen table conversation, the mood takes an unplanned turn. A decorative frame crashes in the stairwell.
Bethane takes it as a message.
“That's DePayne! Because we put a picture up, and we said, ‘With all luck, it'll fall down during the interview,” Bethane say, adding that it gave her a much-needed laugh.
She says church was DePayne’s stomping ground, “being in the choir, and being in the pulpit. And when I would go to church, I would come back home and we would talk and I’d say, 'Girl, you won't believe it... he did it this time!’ And I would tell her what the pastor preached. And it would spark long conversations between her and I. And so I miss that. I miss not being able to call her, and share what we call 'our time.’”
Through much of our conversation, Bethane's daughter, 19-year old Jillian, sits quietly, supportively. Her face shows that she's emotionally and mentally engaged in the conversation. And when invited to join-in, she highlights the funny side of her aunt's personality.
“She would say my full name, Jil-li-an, but the way she would say it..she would be like, 'Jil-li-an cannot go outside.' And she would always say my full name, you could hear every letter.”
DePayne was the glue in the family, Bethane and Gracyn agree. She brought everyone together.
"Everyone depended on her for everything. We all leaned on her. I just feel like she was the go-to person for everything. For everything. No matter what," Gracyn says.
Her family also remembers the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor as a woman who put music into their lives - writing and singing songs since childhood, says Bethane.
“The first song…she wrote a song, and we used to sing it when we took our bath so I think she might have been 10 or 11 when she did, 'When we Get to Heaven', and, she been writing ever since.”
Gracyn adds her mother sang in the kitchen, in the car. In 2008, she wrote a song during Barack Obama's first campaign for president, titled "Embrace the Change."
Accepting change, has been the hard task for DePayne's family for the past 12 months. For Bethane, the journey into a future without her sister, seems to have taken on, a gentle rhythm.
“Right now I'm just a work in progress. I take - started out saying one day at a time, but, I'm back to one breath at a time. And I'm comfortable with one breath at a time.” Bethane says.
The powerful voice of DePayne Middleton-Doctor doesn't fill her home or a church sanctuary these days. But her voice can still be heard, through a song composed and sung by her niece Jillian.
Whenever you feel like you wanna cry, keep your head on your shoulders, believe that you can survive… I’ll be there to hold your hand, dear. I’ll help you fly. No need to be afraid, let my song be your guide….
[let your song be your guide….let your song be your guide.]
WFAE's Gwendolyn Glenn contributed to this story.