After her mother was killed in the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the Rev. Sharon Risher became an evangelist for a new cause: gun safety.
Working with Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization founded after the Sandy Hook shootings, she tells her story on campuses and at churches across the country.
Part of that story has been her struggle to forgive racist murderer Dylann Roof.
Roof shot Risher’s mother, Ethel Lance, two of her cousins, Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, and her childhood friend Myra Thompson. They were among the nine people killed when Roof opened fire at a prayer service at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“You know, you don’t hear anybody on the news talking about forgiving this man [in Las Vegas]. You don’t hear anybody talking about forgiving the Pulse shootings. It’s only in Charleston,” Risher said. “Nobody’s talking about forgiveness; everybody is talking about ‘we send prayers and thoughts.’ Really? Are you really praying? Are you really praying?”
Risher said she hopes that by telling her story she can get people to understand the impact of gun violence -- and then to motivate others.
“It takes more than prayers to deal with the things that we have to deal with as a society right now. Yes, God gives us prayer, but he gives us the motivation and the willingness to take action,” she said.
Risher spoke to Faith & Leadership about her experience, and her hope for change. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: When your mother was killed, you were working as a trauma chaplain. How did you react when you were the one who was traumatized?
I’ve always had a heart for working with people, and after this, it was like -- it was a blow to the soul.
For a person that had faith and worked out their faith in their professional life, to be put in a situation where everything that you believe in, the goodness of people, was just blown to pieces in my heart --
In my work, I couldn’t find that heart comfort for me. So the work that I’ve been propelled in is to get people to understand this on a personal level. This just wasn’t something that happened in the media. These were actual people that lived and loved and worshipped, and they weren’t just numbers.
You know, we keep hearing [from Las Vegas] the number 58, but it’s more than just 58. Things like this cause, I believe, a tear in the soul of people who really want to do good and love their neighbor.
Q: You talk about people vs. numbers. Tell me about your mom -- tell me about the beloved person that you lost.
My mom was a very complicated person, but she had a joyful spirit. She loved listening to gospel music and liked dancing when the family got together on family holidays. Music always got us up together dancing, with my mom in the middle.
She came from very, very humble beginnings. She worked for the city of Charleston for more than 35 years and took pride in it. Even though she cleaned up after other people, she was very prideful of that work. Always wanted things to be clean and nice.
That’s what her life was about -- serving others in her small little way. She never wanted to be in the limelight. My mom was always a background kind of person. But in the background, she showed that heart for serving and loving through her work and her generosity.
Q: And she was a churchgoer.
Of course. My mom joined Emanuel AME Church when I was a sophomore in high school, and that was like 1974. So we talk about “when mama got Jesus and started to go to Emanuel.”
She really started to embrace the church and became a part of the usher board, the gatekeeper, welcoming people as an usher. And she took all of those roles that she played in the church very seriously.
She was kind of staunch, in a very loving way.
Q: There was a lot of attention paid when almost immediately after the shooting, members of the church said they forgave the killer. But you’ve said in the past that you’ve struggled with that. And I wondered, more than two years later, how you feel now.
I’ve continued to try to work that out in my heart. And I thank God for allowing me to wrestle with that.
Last Sunday, I preached in Martinsville, Virginia, for a World Communion service.
In the midst of my preaching and talking about forgiveness, the words started to tumble out of my mouth, because -- see, I knew eventually in my heart that I would get there. But I just wanted to know, when I got there, there was no doubting, there was no recanting.
And I shared out loud publicly that I forgave him.
I never wanted to just say it out publicly, because I always thought that’s something between me and God. But in the midst of preaching that sermon, I said publicly that I had forgiven him.
You know, you don’t hear anybody on the news talking about forgiving this man [in Las Vegas]. You don’t hear anybody talking about forgiving the Pulse shootings. It’s only in Charleston.
Nobody’s talking about forgiveness; everybody is talking about “we send prayers and thoughts.” Really? Are you really praying? Are you really praying?
Q: Well, that was actually something I was going to ask you about. There’s been this backlash about that expression “thoughts and prayers.”
Because that’s the easy thing to do to let people know, “Hey, I have some sense of heart.” But I feel like a lot of that is just empty words because it sounds good.
You know, as a person of faith, I believe prayer moves things. So if all these people are actually praying -- I think things would be different if everybody was actually praying the way they said.
But it takes more than prayers to deal with the things that we have to deal with as a society right now. Yes, God gives us prayer, but he gives us the motivation and the willingness to take action.
Q: You’ve taken action by working with Everytown for Gun Safety. How did you come to be involved in Everytown, and what do you see as your role there?
I got introduced to Everytown by Lucy McBath, who lost her son Jordan Davis to gun violence in Jacksonville, Florida.
And I’m telling you, it wasn’t something I thought, “Oh, I will do this.” It was like this movement stirred in my soul.
And the next thing you know, I was flying across country and going to D.C. and just standing up. I was given some points to talk about, but the rest of it was just God using me as a messenger in the mess.
I was like, “Wow, I actually got up there and talked and moved people.” That’s just all God. That’s all God. Because if it were left up to me, I’d still be in a hole somewhere.
Q: Are you still working as a trauma chaplain?
No, I’m still trying to figure out what God plans for me. I am speaking all over the country to colleges and universities, and I’ve been preaching in churches. That’s kind of kept me busy. Where I’m going right now, I just can’t quite see my path. And so I’m just going to continue to walk this path God has laid out for me. I’m down with that.
Q: And what is the main message you want to send?
Gun violence affects everybody on every level. That we have to work within our hearts -- not to look to the Second Amendment, not to look to which church you belong to, not to look to the political parties.
I believe this is a moral issue. This is about lives. This is about living together in community; this is about the sacredness of life.
With Emanuel, I don’t only carry my mom. I feel like I carry them all. So can you imagine grieving for nine people? You know?
Q: I cannot imagine that.
For everybody who has lost somebody -- not just in mass killings but all the everyday killings -- you never get over it. You learn to deal with it, but it’s right there.
Everytown has given me a platform that I would not have had. They have given me the confidence to use all of the skills and the faith that God has given me to try to reach people. Their platform has given me an opportunity to reach more people than I ever could have.
Q: Do you recommend any particular strategies?
Of course, we go along with having background checks. We look to our states. Our purpose is to try to find the lax laws, to strengthen them. I don’t know that there’s going to be a proven strategy, but we just keep working to try to make it better.
I think my job is to get to people’s hearts. I think that’s where the change has to come -- in the person’s heart. And then that’s where I think the church comes in. It’s our job to use the Holy Scriptures and the message of God to lead with our hearts. Because if we lead with our hearts, then we will do more good than ever do harm.
If you get that person’s heart and their willingness to move into action, it will just be good for everybody. And we could try to have that beloved community that Dr. King talked about.
Q: Some people have said in discouragement that if the Newtown/Sandy Hook shooting didn’t persuade people, then nothing is going to persuade them. Do you agree with that?
Ah. Well, you’d think, if people couldn’t find in their hearts after all of these children were killed ... Yes, there is a heart hardness that people have.
But I think that’s the part we have to play in church. It doesn’t just stop. I think Sandy Hook really just started the conversation. So we have a long way to go, you know? There are a lot of hard hearts out there.
Q: What about Christian leaders in particular?
I know this has been a heavy subject with leaders in the church. How do you talk about the issues that we have to deal with as a society on an everyday level? And some people tend not to want to go there. But we have to.
We live in this world. We don’t live in the church. So I believe leaders have to find creative ways, thought-provoking ways of getting the message out to the people in their church.
I think as leaders, we have to be a messenger of what’s going on in our society to help our congregations understand ways that we could live and not walk in fear and be the people that God called us to be.
We can’t just sit by and let the outside world go on and say, “We don’t have to be a part of that.”
The world isn’t all “kumbaya.” I feel as leaders, we can’t let our church be a place of warm-and-fuzzy and then walk out to a brutal world.
Q: And certainly, the Charleston shooting shows that even if you try to do that, the world will come into your church.
Yes. But we will continue to do what we do. Because evil will come whenever. So yes, it walks in churches and walks in schools and walks everywhere, and we’re a part of the everywhere. So if our faith is in God, then we don’t walk in fear.
I’ve been places where they’ve had security guards and officers for my protection. It never dawned on me that I could go out there and start talking about gun violence and somebody would kill me because they didn’t like what I had to say.
I don’t walk in fear, you know? All we can do is try to preach the message of love.