Activism Amidst Protests and Racism
Reflections on the Charleston Nine Shooting with Rev. Sharon Risher
Posted Jun 29, 2020
June marked the five-year anniversary of the horrific shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina that took the lives of nine Black parishioners. Rev. Sharon Risher’s mother was one of those nine.
Following the aftermath of that tragedy, Rev. Risher dedicated her life to gun violence prevention, traveling the country to understand the effects of gun violence trauma and activate communities, churches, legislators, and people to prevent. Today, in the midst of gun violence prevention awareness month and racial injustice plaguing our nation, Rev. Risher shares a message of hope.
Rev. Sharon Risher, M.Div. is a trauma chaplain turned activist. She is a supporter of Prayers & Action, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, member of the Everytown Survivor Network, and author of For Such a Time as This: Hope and Forgiveness after the Charleston Massacre.
JA: For those who are unfamiliar with you and your work, what has life been like for you in the past five years?
SR: On June 17, 2015, a young white supremacist walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and slaughtered nine people during a Bible study he had attended with them. One of those individuals was my mother.
Since that time, I’ve been very vocal about racism in America. Racism played a big part in why they were killed and why we continue to have to deal with that kind of treatment. I’ve traveled across this country, talking about the Emanuel 9 because they’re not just statistics. They are real people who had real lives, dreams, and wants.
I’ve also been a big advocate for gun violence, which is now a public health crisis. My mother’s shooter should have been stopped from buying a gun. He had a previous arrest, but his background check took longer than three days. Due to a loophole allowing gun sales to proceed if a background check has not been completed within three business days, that sale was completed. Today, the loophole is known as the “Charleston Loophole.”
JA: Some people try to ignore tragedy; you faced it head-on, dedicating your life to this work of reducing gun violence. What has it looked like for you to grieve and heal along the way?
SR: Well, that process for me has been very public. As I traveled and retold this horrific story, I was also grieving. There were many times with lots of tears. Privately it was a struggle. The one thing about healing and grieving is when you’ve had such a great love, your grief is going to be great.
I wouldn't have been able to do any of what I have done if I didn’t believe that God was sending me. I was trying to be obedient to my call, to my ministry, and to my God. But the grieving and healing never, never stop.
JA: As we grapple with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless others, slipping into despair and opting out of the conversation is often an easier choice for so many. What is your call to those who would rather turn from the conversation of gun violence and racism than enter into it?
SR: I say to these people: If you have convinced yourself you will not be touched by everything that is going on, then you’re in denial. Everything that happens affects everybody.
All of the lamenting, moaning, and being tired have come to a head. People feel like they need to be heard, which is sometimes a painful thing. Then, the people who have privilege want to know why. If you can’t figure out why then you’re part of the problem. I beg you to understand we’re not in a bubble. There must be accountability to be decent people.
The spirit, the voice, and the blood of the Emanuel 9—I believe in my heart—is in the protests going on. Why did they have to die? And in a church of all places? Because of the hate and racism in someone’s heart, the main factor in the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the others.
JA: June is also gun violence prevention awareness month. What steps must we take, as a nation, to address, deal with, and heal from the decades of trauma that gun violence has impressed upon us?
SR: We have to vote people into office who are gun-sense candidates. Nobody wanted to deal with that agenda, but now, because of groups like Moms Demand Action, people understand this is a political issue needing to be addressed. If we can save lives, why not have common-sense gun laws? Why can’t the Charleston Loophole be closed? We cannot stand idly by, we've been complacent too long. Our vote is our power, putting like-minded people in power. We have to educate ourselves. It’s time to be a conscientious citizen and do what’s right.
JA: For the reader sitting at home who isn’t in a public office and feels unable to make an impact, what can they do to be a part of the solution both right now and long-term?
SR: Many people belong to communities of faith, so I’d recommend starting there. What stance does your church have? Are there people who want to learn more? I’m asking faith leaders and believers to go into their communities. Visit another church, form alliances with other pastors.
I believe faith leaders are called to give an understanding of what’s happening in the world. We can’t run away from what’s going on. Faith communities have to ramp up their willingness to understand, listen, and let their hearts be changed.
JA: How can we care for ourselves in the midst of anti-racism and gun violence prevention work?
SR: That’s a hard road. You might not get self-care continuously, but you have to carve out time. For me, it’s making sure I’m well-rested. I read things that are pertinent for the day, but I also have my James Patterson books. I listen to music, journal, walk my dogs. And you have to eat. Sometimes we get so caught up we forget to eat a good meal. Caring for ourselves is about figuring out what combination of things gets us through. We think we can just go on and on, but we can’t.
JA: What is your personal focus for this month? What about after June—what is next for you?
SR: Right now, I’m pushing to close the Charleston Loophole because I want to save lives. I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve been through.
After June, I don't know. That’s the scary thing about advocacy and activism. But I will continue to do what I’ve been doing—tell the story of those nine Black people to anyone and everybody.
It’s scary not to know what’s next, but I’m not anxious because I believe my God always provides. After five years, I can say that I’m at peace. I’m doing what I know I should be doing. Every step of the way, I continue to have conversations with my mother, asking if she’s proud of the work I’m doing. It all comes down to: God, are you pleased with me? Momma, are you pleased with me?
Rev. Sharon Risher earned her Master’s of Divinity degree from Presbyterian Theological Seminary and has served as Staff Chaplain and Trauma Specialist at Parkland Hospital and as Associate Pastor for Congregational Care at Rice Chapel AME Church in Dallas, TX. After losing members of her family during the Charleston church massacre in 2015, Rev. Risher has been an advocate for gun safety and has appeared on CNN, BBC Radio, Good Morning America and CBS, and has been interviewed or written for Time, Marie Claire, Essence, Texas Monthly, Vogue, and VOX.