Reverend Sharon Washington Risher never asked to be placed into the spotlight. She never asked to become an advocate or spokesperson. She never asked to be pulled into the maelstrom of the nation’s gun debate.
On June 17, 2015, however, Reverend Risher’s life was tragically and irrevocably changed.
“I was living in Dallas, Texas, at the time, working as a chaplain and trauma specialist at Parkland Hospital” she said. “By about 10 p.m., the news reports started to come in and the telephone started to ring. Then, everything changed. I was completely blown away by everything that I was hearing.”
It was the evening that Dylann Roof was welcomed into a prayer service at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Their goodwill was met with hatred and violence as Roof opened fire on the parishioners, killing nine, including Risher’s mother and the church’s sexton, Ethel Lee Lance. Risher also lost two cousins, Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, and a childhood friend, Myra Thompson, during this senseless act.
“For 20 months, it has been like living a in a fugue state. You basically do what you need to do when you need to do it to get through each day and not sink into a deep hole,” said Risher. “The global response is something that I still find phenomenal — it wasn’t just nine families that were affected by this horrific event. Maybe now, after everything, after the trial has ended, maybe now we can try to process what has happened.”
On Wednesday, March 8, Reverend Risher will present “Tattered Pieces: A Charleston Daughter Explores Loss, Faith and Forgiveness,” at 7 p.m. at Temple University Ambler, Bright Hall, 580 Meetinghouse Road, Ambler, PA 19002. This event is sponsored by the Ambler Campus Office of Student Life, Ambler Campus Student Government Association and Ambler Campus Program Board. Admission is free and open to the public. Register for the event online at ambler.temple.edu/charlestonspeaker.
“I’m going to share a narrative of what went on from the night it happened to today. I’ll talk about forgiveness, which is something the city of Charleston was very passionate about,” said Risher. “Forgiveness is a process — you have to be true to what you feel. It’s a process that I’m still working my way through.”
In December 2016, Dylann Roof, who confessed that he committed the shooting in hopes of igniting a race war, was convicted in federal court of 33 federal hate crime charges. He was sentenced to death. He is also awaiting trial in South Carolina state court on nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder.
“Even with the heinousness of his crime, I personally didn’t want (Roof) put to death, but I can’t say I’ve forgiven him,” Risher said. “I know I will get there one day, but that may very well be something that won’t be a public thing, something that will just be part of my journey.”
Since the tragedy, Risher has moved from Texas to Charlotte, North Carolina, where her two grown children live. She considers Charlotte her “base of operations” for her ongoing advocacy efforts to enact sensible gun policies at the state and federal level. Outspoken about the nation’s gun laws, she is now one of the national spokespersons for the grassroots advocacy groups Everytown and Moms Demand Gun Sense.
Risher has appeared on CNN on several occasions and was interviewed by Time Magazine, Marie-Claire magazine, the Guardian, BCC radio and many others. She also visited President Barack Obama at the White House on several occasions, spoke on Capitol Hill, and has been a guest speaker for several Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial events. Through it all, she said, “Mama has been there, standing there with me.”
“None of this is about taking people’s rights away or taking people’s guns away. It’s about understanding why all of this violence and destruction is taking place and exploring common sense gun laws that will help keep everyone safe,” she said. “Gun violence touches us all. We can’t continue to see what has happened, and continues to happen, and not do something about it. It’s not about color or religion; it’s all about human life.”
Risher wants to ensure that none of the lives lost in Charleston are forgotten.
“My mother, Ethel Lee Lance, was able to overcome so much; she instilled in us resiliency. She didn’t have the educational opportunities that she wanted us to have,” she said. “She wanted us to be able to do what we wanted to do and she knew education was the way for us to rise up. She always gave us the push we needed.”
At 87, Susie Jackson, was the oldest of the parishioners lost to Roof’s violence, while Tywanza Sanders, 26, was the youngest.
“Susie was the elder stateswoman. She was the one to give you the side eye if you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing. She had the most beautiful singing voice; she was the center of the choir,” she said. “I didn’t have the opportunity to interact with Tywanza that often, but I know he had an entrepreneurial spirit and spent his life trying to make people happy. He never had the chance to really grow up, to get married, to have children.”
Growing up with Myra Thompson, her friend, being a little older, would always be the teacher when they played school, she said.
“I think even then we all knew that education was serious business; that it was the key to our future — Myra ended up becoming an educator. When she felt the call to ministry, Mama had her talk to me about the process that I went through,” she said. “Myra and I connected again through Mama. We never got the chance to grieve each of them individually; we had to grieve for them as a group.”
Looking toward an uncertain future, Risher said, “there is always hope for change.”
“Change will come through your faith and your commitment to helping other people. The issues that we’re talking about today aren’t political issues, they are human issues,” she said. “The world is in so much chaos; we live in a world where nine black people were killed in a church. Those lives need to stand for something positive; they need to stand for love and peace. If we can do something to help one person feel safer, we need to do it — that is what I’ve dedicated my life to.”
For additional information about Reverend Sharon Washington Risher’s appearance at Temple University Ambler, contact the Office of Student Life at 267-468-8425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.