Chris Singleton’s year of strength and sorrow after the Charleston shooting
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — He doesn’t really want to enter this house. It’s cold in there. It’s full of back then. But it’s January, his sophomore year of college baseball at Charleston Southern University is about to begin and Chris Singleton needs to check on the place before all the practices and road trips and exams pile up. He flips through the mail, fumbles with the key . . . then steps inside.
His eyes land on the old beige couch where he was sitting with his little brother when the phone call came that night. He shifts to the bar where the hand-signed letter from the President and the First Lady lays open.
He walks to his bedroom, barren but for his high school baseball poster and three mounds of clothes that his mother was collecting for charity when she headed downtown for Bible study that night seven months earlier.
He peers into his little brother’s room, at the twin bed that he’d squeezed into trying to console Caleb to sleep their first motherless night.
He walks down the hallway and peeks into his younger sister’s room. Camryn hadn’t wanted to leave this place. She’d wanted the three of them to just go on living here together no matter how bad it hurt.
He comes to his mother’s room. For a month after the slaughter, he could open this door and feel her there. He could smell the perfume she sprayed on each morning and the eucalyptus oil she sprinkled on her pillow each night. He could picture her at her desk, looking up at him from her book to see what he needed. But not anymore. He turns and heads for the kitchen.
He opens the refrigerator to check for spoiled food, then snaps it shut and stares at the white-erase calendar on the door. In his mother’s handwriting, he sees Chris, Caleb and Camryn at the bottom of each day they were scheduled to do chores. He has looked at this calendar a thousand times, but never, until now, seen it. “I don’t think I’ll ever erase it,” he says.
On June 17, 2015, at around 10 p.m., Chris was reclining on that couch in the living room of the one-story, dual-wing house on Village Green Circle. He was half watching his brother browse YouTube videos on the TV and half scrolling through social media apps when his phone rang. Strange: His mother’s number, but not his mother’s voice. Are there any adults with you? a woman asked. Chris was home alone with Camryn and Caleb and one of their cousins. No? You need to get down to the church right away.
He grabbed the keys to his Honda Civic, told the kids he’d be back soon and headed from his house in North Charleston toward Mother Emanuel AME downtown, where his mother was a reverend and a regular at Wednesday night Bible study. The woman who called was shaken, he could tell. But what could be wrong?
He had talked to his mother not two hours ago. He’d called her when he’d arrived home from a game with his under-19 summer league squad, the North Charleston Dixie Majors. In a whisper, so as not to bother her Bible study group, she’d told him that she’d hidden Caleb’s computer mouse in the closet so that he wouldn’t waste the night playing computer games. He told her he loved her and she said the same to him.
As he accelerated onto I-26 for the 25-mile ride, his mind raced. Two years ago, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, his mother, had suffered a mini-stroke. Her own mother had died of an aneurysm in 2002. He pushed the pedal deeper now, nearing 70 mph. Is she in an ambulance? At a hospital? … 80 mph … Why did that woman have his mother’s phone? Where was his mom? … 90 mph …
As he reached the blinding lights of a police barricade, he popped his car onto the curb and told the officer he needed to get to the church. His mother was inside. No, said the cop, pointing him to the Embassy Suites just up the block. He hurried there, entered the lobby and saw people clutching each other, people sobbing, people staring into space. There was no clarity there, just more confusion.
The only official news he heard for hours was that there had been a fatal shooting inside the church. But no one could answer the only question he cared about: Was his mother among the dead?
He pulled his phone from his pocket and typed out a tweet at 10:35: “Something extremely terrible has happened to my mom tonight, please pray for her and my family. Pray asap.” Three minutes later, another one: “Pray for my mom please !!!!!!”
His girlfriend, Mariana, was the first to join him there, leaving the fried chicken joint where she worked and collecting Camryn and Caleb on the way downtown. She was nearly as scared and as distraught as he was—Sharonda was her track coach at Goose Creek High and her confidante in her relationship with Chris—but she didn’t know what to say when she found him, his face buried in his hands. So she just reached for his hand and intertwined her fingers in his. Uncles and aunts and grandparents and friends arrived. Still no news.
Finally, after midnight, the coroner asked Chris an ominous question: Was there anything they could use to identify Sharonda? Did she have any tattoos? Any scars? Had she worn any jewelry? Camryn told the coroner that her mother was beautiful and always wore a pearl necklace. Chris described a tattoo on her leg and in that moment, he knew.
A couple hours later, the coroner summoned Chris’s family to her office. Chris was only 18, but in that moment he made the first of what would be many adult decisions. He told Camryn, 15, and Caleb, 12, to wait in the hallway. If their mother was dead, they would hear it from him, not from a stranger. “That’s the moment everything changed,” Mariana would say later. “That’s the moment Chris stopped being the big brother who would look after them but also pick on them . . . and started being their father figure.”
Chris said a prayer with his uncles, aunts and grandparents and walked out of the coroner’s office. Then he found Camryn and Caleb and a courage he’d never known. He ushered them to a quiet spot around the corner, told them what had happened and held them as they wept.
He handed his keys to Mariana, and the four of them got into his car. Chris prayed they wouldn’t have anymore questions, but Camryn had one: “Do you think she’s watching over us already?” Chris said he was sure of it. He even managed to make them all laugh by saying that dying in a church guaranteed you’d go to heaven.
It was nearly 5 a.m., the faintest twilight in the sky, when they got home and collapsed, huddled on the couch.
Later that morning, Chris left the house and returned to a familiar place: Collins Park, where just the night before he had played a game for the Dixie Majors. Except everything had changed. He was in street clothes, with a microphone clipped to his purple Polo shirt and two boom mikes suspended before him. A dozen people stand behind him—coaches, teammates, friends. A hundred in front—well-wishers, strangers, reporters.
On the car ride here over, he had told Mariana he wouldn’t say anything at the prayer vigil. He just wanted to show face, show strength, and let the people know that he would be O.K. . . . one day.
But then he found himself letting the crew clip that mic by his shirt’s bottom button and walking onto the field in front of those cameras. His coaches told him he didn’t have to talk. His pastor—a former college football center—told Chris he would shut the whole thing down in a second if he signaled. But now Chris found himself starting to speak. What would he tell them? The full truth? That he’d barely slept? That he’d rather be back in the shower, where his tears had mingled with the running water for a half hour that morning and poured down the drain? That he’d rather be back on the futon in the shed behind the house, which had been his high school sanctuary, with Mariana holding him in the lonely quiet? No. He was Sharonda’s son.
Some of her closest friends were in the crowd. They shivered as they watched her come out of him. Her kindness. Her clarity. Her unforgettable smile—the one that made her students and athletes and children feel as if they were the architects of all joy. The woman who hugged strangers and crisscrossed town to give communion to elderly parishioners who couldn’t get to church. The one who cared for Chris’s father as he struggled with alcoholism and divorced him twice but loved him until the end.
Chris thanked everyone who had reached out to him, expressed his grief for the other families and fielded 15 questions. “I didn’t think about it at all,” he’ll say later. “I just spoke from the heart.” Someone asked if he had a message to pass on to a world horrified that a young man could walk into a church and fire 77 bullets at a group of people as they studied Scripture, ending nine lives, stealing sisters and brothers, parents, grandsons and grandparents, all in hopes of starting a race war.
A young man who didn’t understand the verses in Mark 4 that the group was dissecting as he sat there that evening, getting ready to reach into his backpack and pull out the Glock. The verses telling how some seeds fall in rocky ground and never germinate while others fall in good soil and multiply a hundredfold.
A young man who couldn’t imagine the seeds of strength and resiliency that those nine people had planted in their loved ones, that Sharonda had sewed and nurtured for 18 years in Chris.
“I just say, love is always stronger than hate,” Chris told the crowd. “If we just love the way my mom would, then the hate won’t be nearly as strong as the love is.”
There it was, his mission for the rest of his life—to show how small hate is, held against love. It was out of his mouth before he’d had a chance to grasp what that would take. He took off the microphone, went to his car, closed the door and broke into sobs. Now he had to go home and live that message.
First he had to figure out what to do next. His mother’s will left his brother and sister in the care of Shalisa Coleman, Sharonda’s sister, who lived in Atlanta. (The struggles of Chris’s father, also named Chris, had only worsened in the weeks following Sharonda’s death.) Chris considered quitting baseball. He thought about transferring, too, so that he could stay close to Camryn and Caleb. Chris felt sick that they’d have to uproot their lives and forge new friendships in an impossible time. But he didn’t feel right abandoning his city, his coaches or his teammates after their outpouring of support. And he wouldn’t let the shooter take another part of his life away. Returning to the game was both a reflex and a refuge.
Chris’s mother had raised him with a competitive instinct that Chris couldn’t silence—she once tore her Achilles racing him to the car in the driveway. She had run track at South Carolina State and coached the girls’ track team at Goose Creek, where Chris went to high school. She had put all of her kids into sports—Chris in baseball and basketball, Camryn in softball and shot-put and Caleb in baseball and football. Chris had grasped a glove before he could read and was in Tee-ball by age 3.
No, he couldn’t quit baseball. He couldn’t even go more than a few days without working out. He came by CSU’s gym that first weekend to pick up some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and maybe a chocolate milk. In his grief, he’d forgotten to eat for days at a time, and 10 pounds had fallen off him that first week. Strength coach Chad Scott spotted him and told him he’d clear out the gym anytime Chris needed it. He needed it more than he knew. When he started lifting again, he was amazed to see how it cleared his mind. There was no way to replay the events of that Wednesday night when he was hoisting 265 pounds above his chest. No way to bargain with God to bring her back as the jump rope swished over his ears once every second. No way to think about how to pay the mortgage with music blaring so loud it nearly shredded the speakers.
He’d offered his message of love and forgiveness to the world, and the response had been overwhelming. Vice President Joe Biden called him. He, too, had endured tragedy, losing his first wife and his one-year-old daughter in a car accident in 1972. Biden told Chris to do something that had helped him: mark his good days and his bad days on a calendar and to watch as the good outnumbered the bad. He gave Chris his home phone number in case he ever wanted to call.
Letters and packages from strangers flooded in from as far away as South America and southeast Asia. They were filled with prayers and the confessions of people who shared their own wounds with him. There was also art. Depictions of his mother’s face, on oil and canvas, in charcoal, in crayon. But it was impossible to accurately capture Sharonda’s smile unless at one point in your life you’d been lucky enough to have seen it. Chris received nearly 1,000 pieces of correspondence, mocking the pack of 50 thank-you notes he’d purchased in order to reply.
More familiar names reached out as well. Two days after the tragedy Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen, Chris’s favorite player, sent him a message on Twitter. Four days after that, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton came to Chris’s house, gave Caleb an Xbox and spent a couple hours playing it with them. The next day Chris met Barack and Michelle Obama at his pastor’s memorial service, the one in which Obama sang “Amazing Grace” to an astounded congregation. In August, the Yankees invited him to the Bronx for Hope Week. In batting practice at Yankee Stadium, he knocked a couple balls over the fence, and later that night, he threw out the first pitch with Camryn and Caleb.
Some requests were more difficult than others. Chris had been the first of the victims’ families to pledge forgiveness to the shooter, and now he felt obligated to back that up by saying yes to everything. When ESPN asked him to film an E:60 segment in July, he woke at 5 a.m. and drove around with them all day and even returned to Mother Emanuel—the church he’d attended since fifth grade—for the first time since his pastor’s memorial. He viewed every opportunity as a gift, but there was an unavoidable truth that every invitation was rooted in his mother’s death. The collection of signed bats and footballs, the behind-the-scenes tours of the world’s most famous locker rooms, the pictures with actors and activists—he would have sacrificed all that and more just for another minute with his mother.
But he never surrendered to his grief. He bounced between practices and meetings with his financial advisor and appearances at fundraisers for victims’ families. Six-feet tall, a lean 170 pounds and blessed with his mother’s smile, he had a gift for making others feel at ease, even if they’d met under tragic circumstances. Strangers would share their secrets with him, like the woman who walked up to him at a baseball banquet and told him how her sister had died of a heart attack in a church parking lot.
Chris absorbed it all with nods and yes sirs. He had inherited not just his mother’s strength, but also her struggles. Sharonda’s friends would marvel at her time management and her patience, but they worried about her inability to say no, even when it was for her own good. A single mother, she cooked breakfast and dinner every day, went to work and coached track, shuttled her children between their practices and still found time for Bible studies on Wednesdays and Thursdays, to write sermons and perform baptisms and to work toward her Ph.D. in speech pathology—she was in the middle of her dissertation when she died.
Chris needed a place where he could quiet his mind and allow himself solace. Centerfield seemed like the perfect spot. So on June 30, 13 days after his mother was killed and five days after her memorial, he marched defiantly back onto the field at Collins Park donning his Dixie Majors uniform and played a baseball game.
The standing ovation he received during the introductions was special. But then there was an unfamiliar silence. Sharonda used to holler her way through every inning. “Everybody hits, everybody scores!” she’d chant. It didn’t matter how many people were in the crowd or how well Chris was playing—she stood right behind the home dugout and cheered the same way each game. When he cracked his first collegiate home run, it was hard to say what traveled further, the ball itself, or her scream. At one of the last games she attended, she stood right behind the on-deck circle as Chris waited for his at-bat. “You know I’m praying for you, right?” she said through the net. “You can never have too much prayer.”
In the Dixie Baseball championship game at the end of the summer, Chris’s team was one out away from victory, leading 3-2 with two outs in the ninth inning and the tying run on second. A base hit leaked into shallow center, and Chris fielded it and rocketed the ball home, throwing the runner out and saving the win for his team.
But his whole summer couldn’t be summed up in a single highlight. Five days after the game-winning throw, he had to pay the mortgage on his mother’s house for the first time. Two days after that, his brother and sister left for Atlanta.
He knew he couldn’t say in that house. There was a reminder of her in every corner, even in the very dust. He couldn’t walk through the hallway without thinking of how he used to find her on the couch, dipping cheddar and sour cream Ruffles into butter pecan ice cream, watching Law & Order reruns. Couldn’t look at the kitchen cabinets without remembering how his mom used to direct relay races to put the groceries away. Couldn’t even open the fridge without seeing her notes.
By August, with his fall semester about to start, Chris could afford a refuge from the house. He had his modest inheritance—his mom had been a speech pathologist in the school district—along with her life insurance and the donations the church received and split among the families. But he didn’t want to lock away all of their past together. He moved his mother’s bed into his new apartment near campus and slept in it. He took her dresser and put his clothes in it. He hung her picture on his new bedroom wall so he could rise with her smile each morning.
He tried so hard to keep living on Sharonda’s strength. He remembered how he used to find her kneeling at her bedside and return an hour later only to discover she hadn’t budged. So he went from praying only at his pillow each night to talking with God throughout each day. He remembered how she devoured the Bible—there were at least a half-dozen in her room—so he perused Proverbs, searching for the wisdom that had guided her. But even getting out of bed was a battle some days; some days he’d just stare at that picture of her for a half hour before getting up.
At first, when his brother and sister visited, they would all stay in the house. By the time school started, though, it was easier for Chris to be close to campus and so Camryn and Caleb would come to his apartment instead. They had all moved out, and they were all beginning to move on.
Just as his good days were beginning to outnumber his bad, Chris learned that his great-grandfather Willie had died at 91. He heard the news while at a New England Patriots-Buffalo Bills game in Foxborough, where he’d gone just days before Thanksgiving at the invitation of Tom Brady. When he returned to Charleston, a CSU teammate, Brandon Burris, insisted they go together to Elevate, a Thursday night campus ministry. The band played “Oceans,” by Hillsong United. You call me out upon the waters/The great unknown where feet may fail . . . Chris felt the flood coming and ran into the hallway to cry in private . . . And there I find You in the mystery/In oceans deep, my faith will stand . . . He couldn’t go back inside. He had to leave. He went to his car and found an audio file on his phone.
Sharonda had three best friends—Kennetha Wright-Manning, Star Overton Miller and Rita Whidbee—whom she had met as a freshman on the track team at South Carolina State. They would go on to win a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship as sophomores, to be each other’s bridesmaids and to witness the births of each other’s children. A week before Sharonda died, she had delivered the eulogy at Star’s father’s funeral. Rita had recorded it and texted it to Chris.
He had saved it for this moment. He pressed play.
. . . We thank you, Father, because your word says that you will never leave us nor forsake us. And especially, Lord God, in times such as these. When we are feeling lonely, Lord God, and when we are feeling sad, all we have to do is look within us. Because you said your Spirit will dwell within us, Lord God. . . .
You know why are we are here, Lord God. We want you to help us to remember the joy, Lord God. Help us remember the happy times, Lord God. . . . You said in your word that the body will return to dust and that the spirit will return to you, Lord God. Because you give all life. We count on you, Lord God.
It was as if she’d recorded this message just for him. As if she’d been filling him with faith for their 18 years together so that he’d have enough in this exact moment. “How could I think even for a minute that she isn’t watching over me?” Chris says. “I live for both God and my mom now. They go hand in hand. My mom knew I’d need faith one day when she was gone. She got me ready for this moment. I will be successful because of how she raised me.”
On the Saturday before Sharonda died, she had walked up to Charleston Southern coach Stuart Lake at the ballpark. He braced himself. Chris couldn’t shake his batting slump and wasn’t responding to Lake’s coaching. Just the day before, Lake had told Chris he could play in the majors but that he might not be able to get there if didn’t change the defeated attitude that was contributing to his .245 batting average. Now here came his mother.
“I heard what you said to my son,” Sharonda said. “These boys have too many other boys in their lives. I’m glad I can count on you to be a man. And to help make Chris into one too.”
A year later, with CSU having just been swept against Longwood to fall to 11–17 on the season, Chris called a players-only meeting. He stood up in the dugout and told his teammates that their seniors deserved better than to end their careers like this and that they should stop caring for themselves individually and start thinking of the team’s goals of getting to the postseason. He told them that if anyone had a problem with him calling them out, he’d fight them right then and there. No one rose to the challenge.
Chris proved to be a leader on the field as well. Though the Bucs would finish 19–34 and miss the postseason, he had a stellar season, batting .332 and leading his team in home runs (4), RBIs (34) and slugging percentage (.466). “He was a force to be reckoned with this year,” says junior infielder Nate Blanchard. “He is definitely one of our leaders, and I think he always would have been, but what happened to him accelerated that process.”
Chris even challenged Lake. In mid-April the Bucs dropped the first two games of a weekend series against UNC-Asheville, and before the Sunday finale, Lake told the team just to stretch. Normally he was meticulous about pregame routines, and Chris felt his coach had let the mounting losses get the best of him. So Chris pulled Lake aside and told him to get his head out of his butt. If anybody other than Chris had told him that, Lake might have blown the lid off his baseball cap. But in that moment he witnessed Chris becoming the man that Sharonda had wanted him to be. The Bucs won that day, and after the game, Lake thanked Chris in front of the team.
“I was feeling sorry for myself, and Chris saw that,” Lake says now. “Only two or three times in my career has a player approached me in that way. And Chris felt comfortable enough to do it because we’d become family. As a coach, it didn’t just wake me up—it also made me incredibly proud.”
Chris had learned to balance silly and serious the way that Sharonda had. She could transition seamlessly from singing Usher’s “Superstar” to teaching her children life lessons. Sometimes, she struck both chords simultaneously, like when she told Chris that anyone who doesn’t try at least once to be a pop star isn’t truly living. He’d still make his teammates laugh when he hit the high notes on the radio hits they played in the locker room, or when he lingered in front of the mirror just a little too long, or when he walked out to Ghost Town DJ’s “My Boo” before at-bats.
She gave everything she had to her friends and her children. When Rita went through a divorce in 2004 and wasn’t sure if she could make the next month’s rent, Sharonda raced to her friend’s house, dropped a blank check in her hand and told her there were as many more of those as she needed as long as Rita didn’t give up on herself. When Chris couldn’t make Mariana’s senior prom last May because he had a baseball game, she planned to throw one for them in the backyard and have Caleb wait on them.
He in turn gave everything he had to his family and his teammates. He spoiled Camryn and Caleb on their birthdays and at Christmas, dashing from store to store until every item on their wish lists was crossed off. He continued publicly pledging his life to his mother’s legacy, posting the hashtag “#CantLetMomsDown” on almost every one of his Instagram photos.
He knows that she isn’t the only one watching him. A sixth-grader at Fort Mill Elementary in Fort Hill, S.C., named Jackson Howard wrote an essay for his class about his hero—Chris. “My hero is Chris Singleton because he gave passion to stand up to others, he is forgiving to people who make him hurt on the inside and he is telling people to love and not hate, because of his mother's loss,” Jackson wrote.
Sadness still sneaks up at the strangest times. On a bus ride home from a game at the end of the season, Chris had to dip his sunglasses over his eyes to hide his tears. He saw a Husqvarna lawnmower commercial a couple weeks ago and was shocked as a memory of his mother calling him on the phone during the same ad flooded his mind. Worse yet, in March, he and Mariana had broken up, and that left him without the one person he’d trusted with his hurt and his tears for the nine months they’d endured since the tragedy. His brother’s and sister’s birthdays in April, Mother’s Day—those were difficult, but sometimes now he’ll go a whole day without thinking about her being gone.
When he gets email updates from his attorneys about the trial—which is set to begin in November— he ignores them for days. It’s part of the way he insulates himself from awful thoughts. He has also remained apolitical. In his apartment, he has one of the pens South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley used last July 7 to sign the bill that banned the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol, but he doesn’t take a stance on gun control.
Chris decided early on that his mother’s killer didn’t deserve any space in his head or his heart. He chooses now not to think about the night he lost her but to focus instead on all the days they spent together.
His mother’s death had devastated him, but it had also given him a new purpose. He’s clearer now on his goals—he wants to go pro after his junior season if he’s drafted; if he doesn’t make it the majors, he wants to be an athletics director at a high school and impact young athletes the way his mother did. He wants more people to know her story and to feel her love. He no longer lives for himself, but for his mother and his sister and his brother. He had discovered what many in grief do—that he was more resilient than he had ever imagined.
The house is mostly empty now. The above-ground-pool is still in the back, and the tire swing is still out front but Chris cut off the electricity in February and they’ll sell it at the end of this month. He isn’t concerned—he doesn’t return to it except when he has to, not because it’s painful, but because it’s pointless. He knows that he can take care of his little brother and his little sister at his apartment or in Atlanta, or anywhere. They aren’t bound to this place.
A couple months ago, his mother’s sister and her best friends came to clear it out. They laughed together as they saw her collegiate track trophies, still proudly displayed on a shelf in her bedroom. They wept as they carefully preserved her photos and admired her collection of books—she had more than 50 titles on theology and parenting and speech, all worn down from reading and rereading. Chris didn’t join them that day. Why would he? His mother’s memories are there; but she isn’t. “Those things she left behind, they aren’t her,” Chris says. “She was more than books and clothes and trophies.”
He isn’t even uncomfortable around her ashes. She isn’t there either. Shalisa, Sharonda’s sister, had kept them at her house, removing that plastic bag from its box and hugging it in her lowest moments. A few weeks ago, Chris opened the bag and carefully deposited a little bit of his mother’s dust into necklace pendants for his aunt, his mother’s best friends, his brother, his sister and himself. His keepsake is a cross. He doesn’t wear it yet, though, because he wants to purchase a chain sturdy enough to withstand a baseball game. For now, he takes comfort just holding it in his hand.
On Friday, the anniversary of her death, about a dozen of Sharonda’s friends and relatives will travel to Jamaica—where she’d honeymooned and later vacationed with her three best friends—and board a boat into the Caribbean to spread her ashes at sea. Chris won’t join them. His mother isn’t there either.
Instead, he’ll go to the ballpark. His summer league team, the Lexington County Blowfish, will take on the Florence Redwolves that night, and he’ll suit up as he has for nearly every game since he lost her.
He’ll wrap his wrists and scribble “SCS” on the tape. He’ll strap on his shin guard, touching the bits of Velcro that read “RIP MA.” He’ll walk to the dugout and as his spot in the lineup approaches, he’ll grab that bat with “SCS” inscribed on its base. He’ll fiddle with his mother’s class ring around his neck. In the on-deck circle, he’ll drop to a crouch, remove his helmet and ask God for strength and favor. He doesn’t have to go to another country to memorialize his mother, and he doesn’t need a house to remember her by. Here on the field, she’s all around him. Here in his heart, she’s still alive.