A refuge in right field
A year after the Charleston church massacre, one victim’s son finds solace in baseball
Inside Chris Singleton’s house are seven paintings of his mother that came in the mail. Some of them capture the infectious smile that everyone says she passed along to him. Others, he admitted, don’t really look like her, but “it’s the thought that counts.”
Since June 17, 2015 — the night Sharonda Coleman-Singleton was shot and killed along with eight others during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — Singleton’s house has been flooded with gifts and messages from people in cities he’s never visited and countries he had no clue existed.
These strangers reached out because of a remarkable act of faith and charity. The morning after the massacre, the alleged killer, a white supremacist named Dylann Roof, was arrested in North Carolina. Just a few hours later, Singleton stood with his younger sister Camryn and said, “We already forgive him.”
“Love is stronger than hate.”
“I didn’t realize how powerful what I said was until after it became powerful,” Singleton, 19, said on a hot April afternoon at Charleston Southern University, where he majors in physical education and plays Division I baseball.
The significance of that moment has been reflected back on him over and over again during the last year by celebrities and everyday folks alike. He’s played video games with NFL MVP Cam Newton, thrown out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium and shaken hands with President Barack Obama. And then there’s Jackson Howard, a sixth-grader across the state, who, when given a class assignment to write about his “hero,” chose Singleton.
Over time, the house has become a storage unit for the unexpected recognition the death of his mother brought him. But he only occasionally makes the eight-mile drive there from his off-campus apartment. Camryn and younger brother Caleb both now live with an aunt in Georgia. The house will soon go up for sale.
He admires the strangers’ paintings, but doesn’t need them. It’ll be a while before he sees his mother’s face again, he said. But that time will come.
“I really do believe I’ll see her again in heaven one day ’cause I’m a firm believer in angels,” Singleton said.
“And if you’re a believer in angels, I believe there’s probably demons somewhere, too.”
According to arrest warrants issued by the Charleston Police Department, “The defendant did enter the church at approx. 8:06 p.m. with a fanny pack. He met with the parishioners who were conducting bible study for the evening.”
At that moment, Singleton was on his way home from a summer-league baseball game an hour away. Only a few weeks had passed since the end of his first year at Charleston Southern, where he had been the only freshman starter on the baseball team. It had been a successful season and Singleton had offers to play summer ball in Virginia and New York. But he decided to stay home and play for the North Charleston Dixie Majors for the second straight year.
Staying in Charleston meant his mother could persuade him to occasionally join her for Wednesday night Bible study. That night, though, he had a baseball game, the only Wednesday game his team played in South Carolina all summer.
Baseball kept him out of the church.
“After approximately an hour of studying,” the warrants continue, “the defendant stood up and with malice and aforethought pulled out a handgun and began shooting at the parishioners inside the hall …”
Roof, 22, faces two death penalty trials. State officials have charged him with nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder. That trial has been postponed until January 2017 while defense lawyers pursue a psychiatric evaluation of Roof. Federal officials have charged him with multiple hate crimes. The first hearing in the federal case will be held June 7.
Coleman-Singleton was 45 years old, a speech pathologist and girls’ track coach at Goose Creek High School, where Chris graduated from in 2014. A former 400-meter hurdler at South Carolina State University in the late 1980s, she became an ordained minister in 2012. Her colleagues at Goose Creek called her authentic and graceful. His coaches remember her being the loudest person at the ballpark. Mother, coach, minister — the common thread in the trinity of her character was that “she loved everybody with all her heart,” according to her son.
That example is what allowed him to attend the vigil the next day at Goose Creek and tell a BBC reporter, “We already forgive him for what he’s done and there’s nothing but love from our side of the family … Love is stronger than hate. That’s all I’ve got to say. Love is stronger than hate.”
“He told me more than once,” said Kenny Wilkinson, the coach of his summer team, “ ‘I did what my mother would have done.’ ”
How could he know? How could he forgive so quickly? Part of the answer lies with Singleton’s own relationship with God.
In the on-deck circle, he closes his eyes and kneels. Before every at-bat, he prays, ending each time with a version of Psalm 37:5. “Allow me to commit my works into you, trust in you and allow you to act.” When it’s time to enter the batter’s box, he looks up and smiles. His routine ends with two kisses to the thick silver cross hanging from his rope-chain necklace.
Singleton didn’t wear a cross until after his mother’s death. Now, he’s always fiddling with it. He’ll swing it around to make sure it’s straight or puts it in his mouth during conversation. He touches it so much that at times it seems as if he just wants to make sure it’s still there. “I feel like if I wasn’t a believer in God, then this would have been 10 times harder than it was,” he said. “Than it is.
“I was never mad at Him. Obviously, you’re going to be like, ‘Why does this gotta be my family? I knew this is part of Your plan, but why does it have to happen to my family? Why does it have to happen right now?’ I just used to have to keep this in mind that God makes no mistakes.”
Wilkinson remembers Singleton telling stories about times he’d walk into his mother’s room to talk to her, and she’d be kneeling by the side of the bed praying. Sometimes she’d be there for an hour at a time. “You pray too much!” Singleton would tell her. “You can never have too much prayer!” she’d respond. When members of the Goose Creek staff cleaned out Coleman-Singleton’s office at the start of their first school year without her, they found numbered to-do lists. “Pray” was listed as every other task.
“Her belief in God was astronomical,” Wilkinson said. Coleman-Singleton, however, didn’t impose her faith on others — not even on her children. Yes, she raised them to be Christians. But once they got to a certain age, she didn’t make them go to church or memorize Bible verses like she did when they were younger. Occasionally on car rides, she’d still challenge Singleton and his younger brother, Caleb, to recite passages from Scripture for $5.
Singleton doesn’t need any extra motivation to test his knowledge of Scripture now. His favorite verse is Proverbs 24:10: “If you fail in the face in adversity, how strong is your strength.”
“You can tell he’s more knowledgeable about the Bible,” said former Charleston Southern outfielder Brandon Burris, who graduated in May. He and Singleton would write Bible verses on their wrist tapes before each game. “You can tell God is way more in his life through all this. You can definitely see it coming out in him.”
On bad days, prayer is what Singleton turns to first. When he contemplates his most apparent burden — being the big brother to Camryn and Caleb, who live 300 miles away with Coleman-Singleton’s younger sister — he talks to God and considers what his mother would do.
“You know dang well you wouldn’t have had no F in geometry if mom was here,” he once had to tell Camryn, a 16-year-old sophomore in high school. He also got on Caleb, who turned 13 in April, for missing two days of school after staying up too late on the computer.
“I know those two really weigh on him. I can tell. Speaking on those two come up a lot,” said Blake Hall, Singleton’s high school basketball coach.
Prayer, however, isn’t his only refuge.
Sitting in his room on Easter Sunday, he thought about his mother and how much he missed her. The next best thing would be to see Camryn and Caleb, so he considered making the four-hour drive to Georgia.
“Instead of just sitting in sorrow, I wanted to just play some baseball,” he recalled, “get my mind off stuff.”
He gathered his things and headed to the place he probably spent the most time during the last year. His sanctuary.
On a hot April afternoon, Singleton heads there again. The team held a group weightlifting session earlier and has the rest of the day off, but he needs more. Before his next class, before his next meal, he has to return to his sanctuary.
“Don’t want to take off when somebody else is working,” he said, the batting cage in sight.
He’s blasting 50 Cent’s Candy Shop on a wireless speaker no bigger than a baseball. Soon, he’ll take out his cracked iPhone, unlock the screen where a picture of his smiling mother is saved, and turn to Pandora’s Gyptian station. “Reggae, that’s some smooth stuff while you’re hitting,” he said.
Charleston Southern’s batting cage is tucked in the left corner of the park, less than 10 steps from the home team’s dugout. Inside, it’s pleasantly cool, with towering trees shading him from the sun he can’t escape while playing in right field. Singleton hoists the net and crawls inside, making his way to a rusted shopping cart full of baseballs. He examines his three bats — each is a 30-ounce, 33-inch aluminum Easton S3Z ZCORE — before deciding which will be the lucky one that day. He then tightens his batting gloves, adjusts the tee and starts to hit.
In the cage, Singleton is at peace. He’s loquacious and personable, often finishing sentences with, “you know?” to go along with a wistful look in his eyes that indicates he’s hoping you understand what he’s saying. Between swings, he talks about his favorite Major League Baseball player, Andrew McCutchen. His mother’s death has connected him to people he never could’ve dreamed of crossing paths with.
“I’ve followed him since I was younger. Being a black baseball player, you try to find somebody you could relate to the most,” he said. “He actually tweeted at me this summer, too, when my mom passed away. It was cool, but I don’t know. I don’t really get starstruck. I don’t know why. I just feel like they’re just regular people because they are, honestly.”
Newton visited his house the week after the shooting, bringing Caleb an Xbox One and they all played Grand Theft Auto. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady invited him to a Monday Night Football game at Gillette Stadium. Vice President Joe Biden gave Singleton his home and work phone numbers, telling him to call whenever he needed to talk. “I haven’t called,” he said. “I don’t really feel like I need to. I’m feeling good right now.”
Singleton doesn’t feel guilty about the prominence his mother’s death has brought him — and she wouldn’t want him to, he said. On the wall in her office at Goose Creek hung a white sheet of paper, on which she wrote “Carpe Diem (Seize the day).” Maybe one day Singleton will be famous for other reasons.
He dreams of playing in the MLB, and those dreams have only intensified since last summer. “Man, baseball is what I do now,” Singleton told his teammates during a rough stretch this past season. “This is all I got.” As a sophomore, he led Charleston Southern in doubles (12), home runs (4) and runs batted in (34), and had the team’s second-highest batting average at .332. Those numbers helped him get a spot in the Coastal Plain League, one of the better summer leagues for college players.
But until he’s draft eligible as a junior in 2017, Singleton can be normal — or as normal as a 19-year-old without a mother can be. Charleston Southern baseball coach Stuart Lake is now the person he goes to for advice on car and homeowner’s insurance, for instance. Lake also hears from strangers wanting to reach Singleton. Initally, people called his office, asking how they could donate money so he could stay in school. Eventually, Charleston Southern received a waiver from the NCAA that allowed the school to accept money to cover Singleton’s educational expenses.
The correspondence, however, didn’t stop at donations. People who have lost family members in car accidents and shootings and victims of domestic violence email Lake almost every week asking him to thank Singleton for helping them face their own situations. Some credit him for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol three weeks after he said “love is stronger than hate.”
“I don’t think he’ll ever grasp what he did till he’s older — what it changed in this state,” Lake said. “You could’ve held a gun on me, that Confederate flag was never coming down.”
Lake respects Singleton’s desire to move on, so he rarely passes along the messages he receives. But one, from 12-year-old Jackson Howard’s mother, stood out. Assigned to write an essay about their heroes, Jackson’s classmates chose moms, dads, grandparents, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and athletes such as Cam Newton. Jackson chose Chris Singleton.
Lake forwarded the essay to Singleton, and out of everything he’s received in the past year, it’s his favorite. The two met in late March when Jackson, his mother, Michele, and father, Michael, spent spring break in Charleston watching Singleton play. One of Michele Howard’s favorite photos from the trip is of Jackson standing next to his hero in the team’s post-practice prayer circle.
“God’s given me a platform not only to spread my faith but spread an example of something,” Singleton said in the cage. “I don’t know what the message I’m trying to spread is. I’m just living life, trying to be a Christian. You just love right, have fun and play ball, you know?”
He gets in his stance, swings and follows through. It’s his cleanest hit of the afternoon. After a few more swings, it’s time to stop. He removes his gloves and returns them to the storage closet behind the dugout.
He takes a deep breath and appreciates the moment. “It’s a good day today,” he said, his eyes staring into right field. Draped over the wall is what appears to be a South Carolina state flag, with a palmetto tree and crescent moon. But if you look closer, the tree’s leaves aren’t actually leaves. They’re doves — one for each of the nine victims — each of them ascending to heaven. Before the season started, Lake brought Singleton onto the field to make sure he was OK with the memorial before anyone else saw it.
“She’ll be in right field with me,” he said. “I like that.”
Unlike the paintings in the house, Singleton sees the flag all the time. The ballpark is his home and the batting cage his sanctuary.
Baseball is one thing Dylann Roof couldn’t take away from Chris Singleton. And through the game, he still feels connected to Sharonda. She’s no longer in the crowd, but forever there. Watching, with everyone else.