We are going through a time of great pain here in South Carolina, as we all grieve for the deaths of nine AME churchgoers, killed while in the midst of a Bible study for the simple fact of being black.

A 21-year-old young man, determined to start a race war, had joined them in their Bible study and then opened fire, telling them it was a job he had to do to save the white race. He deliberately left one woman alive, that she might tell the world of his cause.

Left dead on the floor were the head minister of the church, who was also a state senator; two other ministers, a longtime sexton at the church, a teacher and coach, a young college graduate, three other members – and a church, city and state in deep disbelief and grief.

How could anyone hate so much? How would the families left behind manage? Would this young man succeed in lighting the fires of a race war?

And how could we reconcile the truths we knew with this deep pain, with the lasting loss, with the hate that filled that young man? How to minister to the many who were hurting?

It wasn’t enough simply to say everything is in divine order, or that there is only power in the universe, God the good, omnipotent.

Yet in the midst of all of this, the families themselves answered. Yes, they were hurting. Yes, they were angry. The loss was huge, and it all seemed so pointless.

But one thing they knew and spoke out clearly: Hate will not win. They spoke of love and forgiveness instead.

The college-aged son of one of those killed said, “Love is stronger than hate, so if we love the way my mom did, the hate won’t be anything compared to what love is.”

The sister of another explained, “We are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.”

Instead of separating us, this heinous act brought us together, determined that love would win. The truth is that darkness never defeats darkness; only light can do that.

And hate never conquers hate; only love can do that.

Each of us must turn within, replacing hate with love, darkness with light. That is our job. That is our challenge.

Forgiveness makes the difference in our own lives and in the world. Love is truly the only answer.

It is time for each of us to step up, to exchange those thoughts of separation and blame for thoughts of unity and love. This is what heals. This is what brings joy in the midst of deep pain.

We are one.

Pat Bell, Ph.D. is a member of Unity Church of Hilton Head Island.