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Charleston Church Shooting Turns Reverend into an ‘Accidental Activist’

The Rev. Sharon Washington Risher calls herself an accidental activist. She defines it this way: “Someone who finds themselves in a life-altering experience and springs into action for specific causes or issues.”

Risher, who had family killed in the 2015 Charleston, S.C., church shooting, gave a moving and empowering talk in the May Street Auditorium on November 14 as part of WSU’s Diversity Lecture Series. Among those in attendance were President Barry M. Maloney, Provost Lois Wims, and Director of the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership Development Kristie McNamara, who introduced Risher.

She spoke about the horrific tragedy in Charleston and how it eventually turned her into an “accidental activist.” She explained that the shooting led her to find her authentic voice and use it to speak out against the gun violence that is gripping the country. In the time since the shooting, she has become a national spokesperson for the grassroots advocacy groups Everytown and Moms Demand Gun Sense.

While her activism has turned her outward, her inward journey from anguish and anger to love and forgiveness, through faith, is the struggle she shared with Worcester State University audience. You see, for her, forgiveness did not come right away. Instead, it was a struggle that tested her faith.

That struggle began June 17, 2015, when four of those closest to, but miles away from, Risher, who lived then in Texas, gathered at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. They were part of a small group in the church attending a Bible study. They had been joined that day by a 21-year-old white male, Dylann Roof, who got up while the group was holding hands, their eyes closed in prayer, and started shooting at everyone. People tried to run and hide, some of them desperately seeking refuge under tables. Roof sprayed bullets under the tables, killing them.

In all, he killed nine people that day, including Risher’s mother, Ethel Lee Lance, who was the church’s sexton, two of her cousins, and a childhood friend. His reason: As a white supremacist, he felt he had to kill African-Americans. (Roof was later convicted of multiple murders and federal hate crimes and is currently on death row.)

“He robbed my family and eight other families of their loved ones,” she said. Five people survived the massacre, she said, but they now must live with the images of that tragedy in their hearts and their minds every day. One of the youngest was only nine years old. “She saw everything and had to play dead while her grandmother covered her mouth,” she said.

Risher was home in Dallas when she heard about the shooting. “I was trying to get myself together, trying to get on a plane to go to Charleston,” she said. She turned on the news and heard her sister’s voice saying that she forgave the shooter, as was called for by her Christian faith. “All I could do was scream,” she said. “How could she forgive him like that? Our mom, our cousins, all these people were dead. I wasn’t about any instant forgiveness.”

Yet, she was compelled by her faith to work towards forgiveness, and battled a roiling mix of strong emotions that inhibited her progress. At a time, when national media were extolling the virtues of Charleston, saying that a city-wide sense of forgiveness was a bright spot in an otherwise unthinkably tragic event, Risher was anguished by her own inability to forgive.

It was on October 1 of this year, she said, while preaching in Martinsville, Va., on World Communion Sunday, that Risher’s faith finally won out. “I was preaching about forgiveness, and the tears started rolling down my face. I said out loud that I forgave him,” she said.

The realization didn’t come as a big epiphany, but seemed to well up from deep within her. “God was telling me I was strong, and I was faithful, and I could let these words come out of my mouth because now they’re coming from the depths of my soul,” she said. Finally, she had come to a place of peace after so much hurt, pain, and grief.

Risher said that experience taught her that anyone seeking to forgive should take their time, in an ongoing prayerful conversation with whatever higher power they might look to. In doing so, you may learn that “you can be your authentic self, that you don’t have to go along with the crowd to get along, that you are an individual with a mind and thoughts, and that you can stand up for yourself even if sometimes it’s not the popular thing to do.”

She also urged audience members to recognize that we are living in a time when the nation is divided more than it ever has been.

“People are living in fear and speaking out of their pain and confusion. People are being rounded up and deported. Families are being torn apart,” she said. “African Americans are wondering who’s going to protect our rights under the Constitution… No matter your political affiliations, people are feeling fearful and angry at the things that are happening in our country.”

One of the worst of those fear-provoking things is gun violence, and that is where Risher’s accidental activism aims to make a difference. She called on the audience to join her in the push for common sense gun laws.

“Everyone has their Second Amendment rights, but we need to understand that guns kill people,” she said. “Eight kids get killed every day by guns because supposedly responsible adults aren’t taking care of the weapons they say they have the right to have. Ninety-three adults are killed every day in this country for one reason or another. As I’ve said, time and time again, prayers and vigils are not enough, people. We have to take action in a real way. We need prayers with feet, prayers with action. We need boots on the ground.”

Risher’s talk was the second of three events in this year’s Diversity Lecture Series, which is sponsored by Active Minds, the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership Development, Athletics, and the Office of Health Promotion. The series continues at 11:30 a.m. March 15, 2018, with J. Danée Sergeant, who will speak about her mental health journey and the odds she overcame beginning in 4th grade.