It’s one thing to read about the recent shootings in the news.
It’s quite another to see tragedy happen in your own backyard, to people you know.
The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, was viewed by many as a troubling sign of persistent racism. But it was more than that. For Tommie Pinckney, a physical therapist at Life Care Center of Charleston, it was personal.
Pinckney is a lifelong member of the church and serves in the Women’s Missionary Society, Usher Board and Pulpit Aide Board.
She was going about her day, unsuspecting, when a gunman shot and killed nine members of her church family. She lost two of her missionary sisters, Susie Jackson and Myra Thompson, as well as her Usher Board’s president’s son, Tywanza Sanders.
Pinckney called the president of the Women’s Missionary Society that night to arrange meeting up with her to pass along a quarterly conference report. The report was due to the church on the 17th, and Pinckney thought the day’s date was the 16th.
“I called her around 9:30, and as I spoke to her, she repeated my name a couple of times. It sounded like something was wrong. She said to me, ‘You haven’t heard what’s happened,’ and I said, ‘No, what has happened?’”
The friend told her about the shooting.
“I stood there at this convenience store in disbelief, and not 10 minutes later, my boss called me, Sherry Kelly, the director of rehab services. She said, ‘Tommie, I just wanted to know you were OK and you didn’t go to the church.’”
Pinckney believes it was divine intervention that she wasn’t there.
“If I’d realized [during the day that] it was the 17th, I would’ve gone straight to the church to deliver the report to the pastor,” Pinckney said.
Not only that, but if she had gotten the report to her fellow church member the day before, that friend would have been at the church presenting the report and may have been included in the casualties.
Pinckney spent much of that night on the phone with family and friends and monitoring the news as more details came out. At 1:20 a.m., she was devastated to learn that Pastor Clementa Pinckney was one of those who had been killed.
“That took me to another level because my pastor was a phenomenal man,” said Pinckney. “He did such wonderful things for our church. He eulogized my husband. He performed my son’s wedding. I felt like he was a part of my family. He used to call me Aunt Thomasann.
“I called my boss at 2:30 in the morning,” Pinckney said, “and she answered the phone, and she was just as kind as she could be, and she said, ‘Tommie, I’m just so sorry.’”
It was a long night for Pinckney, and it continues to be a process of grieving.
When Pinckney came in to work that Friday, the facility team was dressed in white and blue in solidarity with her and the community, and they welcomed her with warm embraces and compassion she describes as heartfelt.
“You could tell that there were a lot of heavy hearts,” said Beth Cliett, executive director.
“The caring from all personnel at Life Care, everybody, has been so overwhelming,” said Pinckney. “It is wonderful to know that I have a family there. All of my managers have been there for me.”
Pinckney’s team has helped fill in for her and taken care of logistics.
Instead of spending her vacation relaxing and enjoying time with fellow church members as they had previously planned, Picnkney spent the next week attending funeral services, mourning the losses and celebrating the lives of those lost.
When asked how the greater Life Care family can continue to support her, Pinckney said, “Please pray for my church family. Prayers help all things.”