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Finding Hope After a Mass Shooting

An interview with Rev. Sharon Risher on her journey after the Emanuel shooting.

After this weekend’s back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, the latter of which appears to have been motivated by hate-fueled ideologies, many of us are left wondering how to respond and move forward toward a better future both individually and as a nation.

A place to begin is to listen to the voices of survivors of past shootings, like Rev. Sharon Risher, who lost her mother and two cousins in the Emanuel shooting, and recently published a powerful new book For Such a Time As This: Hope and Forgiveness After the Charleston Massacre, sharing her story of faith, family, and loss.

Rev. Sharon Risher, used with permission
Source: Rev. Sharon Risher, used with permission

This past June, Rev. Risher joined me at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College along with Prayers & Action for a pre-screening of the film Emanuel, in which she is featured. The touching documentary (produced by Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis and NBA superstar Stephen Curry) chronicles the night that families of the “Emanuel Nine” offered up their forgiveness four years prior.

Many were shocked—and then moved—when family members of the “Emanuel Nine” stood up at the shooter’s trial to offer him their forgiveness.

The following is an edited interview with Rev. Risher on her journey toward forgiveness and details the ways that Christians can help reduce gun violence in America.

Tell us about your experience as a family member who lost loved ones in a mass shooting.

The emotion is raw to know that I grew up in [Charleston] and I loved that city, that that city is different for me now. Everywhere I go in that city, there is [my] mother. There is the spirit of those nine people. I don't think I'll ever not be emotional. That's just the nature of what happened in that church and the depth of the grief and pain that it caused.

You’ve been outspoken about the role of racism and racial tensions in the church mass shooting. How can churches work to overcome such racial injustices?

It’s like the Parable of the Sower: The seeds need to be sown by both entities into good soil. We shouldn’t plant the white church seed over here and the black church seed over there. I think we have scattered our seeds separately long enough. We need to come together. We need to sow the seeds in that good soil together and watch the beautiful flower we will have.

What was the forgiveness process like for you personally following the church shooting?

In my reaching forgiveness, it took me almost two years to get to that. Usually, when I talk around this country, I want people to understand that forgiveness—real, true forgiveness—is a process. If you're willing to do the work and to go through the process ... and, in the process of this, there is anger, there is rage, there is praying more than you've ever prayed.

Then there's not praying. There's not going to church, not wanting to hear that God won't put more on you than you can stand, all of the clichés that people give us because most of the time they don't know what to say, so they end up saying something that they really hadn't thought about.

Forgiveness is hard, especially if you're going to come at it from a spiritual point of view. I walked in the spiritual realm, and then being a “regular,” grieving daughter almost every other day, it flipped back and forth.... No matter what I tried, sometimes I was filled with anger and rage.

It's not until you can get to a point where the rage starts to subside, where the anger starts to quell, then you really, really can put in the work. When you get to that point, you know that you have worked harder than you ever have in your life and that you don't ever have to revisit that, because God has allowed you to work through that. Whatever you come to, you could be all right with that, because you know you have given yourself unto the process.

Not everybody could do it instantly. My sister, Nadine, was the first one. I was in my bedroom in Dallas, trying to get my brains together to jump on a plane to South Carolina, and I hear my sister's voice. I go into the living room to look at the TV, and when she started to say, "I forgive you," I screamed and hollered, just like I did when I heard about my mom, because I couldn't believe, 48 hours later, you're talking about forgiving.

But it wasn't until almost six months later when I was able to get my brains unclogged that I realized that was a God miracle, that all of them had no intentions of talking about forgiveness, but the God that I believe in could pick you up and bring you to a point that you never thought in your life. Then the work God needs for you to do happens, and then you're back to being your regular self, because God has used you for such a time as that, for such a time as that.

You go through forgiveness the way you know how, until you get to a point in your soul, in your heart, that you don't feel anger and rage on a daily basis. Then you know that you have done work. Then there's a new thing that will birth out of you.

Does it get easier or harder to forgive over time?

That's a good question. It took me nearly two years to reconcile, in my heart, forgiveness. [There’s] something that happens to me when I look at him. I don't want to see his evil eyes. I don't want to hear his evil voice. So I guess it doesn't get easier. All it does is remind you of why you don't want to see his face and you don't want to hear his voice.

I thought that if I was able to detach myself after giving forgiveness ... I had worked so hard. I had prayed so hard. I had yelled at God. I was angry and enraged. So I felt like, after all the work I had done, that when God touched me and said, "You have done the work. It's okay," I thought that I was able to detach. I had been until this film, and to have to see his face and to have to hear his voice just brings back all that raw emotional feeling.

What are some actions Christians can take to reduce the likelihood of future mass shootings?

Since that horrific tragedy in Charleston, I've become a member of one of the largest grassroots advocacy group for gun violence prevention. It's a sticky subject. Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to accept the fact that it is a crisis in America. We have seen that these shootings not only happen in a black church. It has happened in our white synagogues and our white Baptist churches, theaters, wherever you could think.

My belief is that if people get to be with family members that have lost loved ones, not just in mass shootings, but everyday shootings, that we would understand that this is a problem, and it has to change. It starts from the grassroots community on up to the legislators in Washington, D.C.

We're not trying to take anyone's guns, but we want you to understand that guns are deadly and if there are not more laws that are going to control the way guns are sold, how guns are sold, to recognize that there are people with a history of mental illnesses that are documented that should not have a gun, these are the ways that we are going to help this crisis in America, to get people to wake up.

You're not in your bubble 24/7. You are going to have to be a part of humanity and live in this country, and guns are a part of it. I pray when you think about this film, you will say to yourself that thoughts and prayers are not enough, and we need people with boots on the ground, trying to make America good for everybody—not some people, but everybody. Curbing gun violence is a way to do that.

Rev. Sharon Risher is a spokesperson for the faith-based gun violence prevention group Prayers & Action, a trauma chaplain-turned-activist, and author of For Such a Time as This: Hope and Forgiveness after the Charleston Massacre.