When Rev. Sharon Washington Risher testified against Dylann Roof, she read the words of “The Parable of the Sower” — a text from the Bible about a farmer planting seeds and reaping its benefits.
It was the same passage being discussed at a Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. That was the same night Roof walked into the church, sat in on the Bible group and killed nine African Americans with a handgun, including Risher’s mother Ethel Lee Lance.
“I made sure he sat there and heard every last word,” Risher told The Temple News.
On Tuesday, Risher presented “Tattered Pieces: A Charleston Daughter Explores Loss, Faith and Forgiveness” in the Ambler Learning Center on Ambler Campus. She discussed how she has struggled with grief and forgiveness since that night in 2015 when she also lost two cousins and a childhood friend.
Ambler’s Assistant Dean for Student Life Wanda Lewis-Campbell asked Risher to present on the campus. She said forgiveness is something all people struggle with personally.
“I thought she had a story to share that a lot of people would want to hear,” Lewis-Campbell said. “She resonates with people.”
A few weeks ago, Risher said she was sitting in church, listening to a sermon, about how forgiveness should immediately happen with no questions asked. But Risher said she struggles to feel the same way about Roof.
When it was announced in January that Roof received the death penalty, Risher said her mind went numb as she sat in the courtroom.
“To me, in my mind, they were truly gone [after I heard that],” said Risher about the Charleston victims. “This was real. We weren’t waiting anymore.”
Wearing a button imprinted with her mother’s smiling face, Risher told stories about how Lance — whom Risher affectionately calls “Mama” — loved “fine perfume” and dancing to James Brown songs. She said people who visited Lance’s home never left without a full belly, a sign of Lance’s appreciation for the company.
As she told the audience about her memories with her mother, she wiped her tears with a black handkerchief — another symbol of keeping Lance close to her, Risher told The Temple News. Her mother was a “handkerchief girl,” she added.
She told stories about Lance to humanize the victims because their individual stories were lost amongst the mass media coverage of the shooting, she told The Temple News.
“A lot of times, we read about shootings and we don’t really see a personal connection,” Risher said. “That’s what I try to do … so you can actually feel what it’s like to be a part of something horrific like that.”
Risher said she found a support system through her work as a national spokesperson for the organizations Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown for Gun Safety, two grassroots organizations working to end gun violence in the U.S.
South Carolina law states that if a buyer’s background check is not processed within three days of the gun purchase request, the seller is legally allowed to distribute, Risher said. She added that she’ll “fight until [she’s] dead” to get a law passed to extend the buffer period to five days.
Jennifer Lugar works as Pennsylvania’s survivor engagement lead for the Everytown Survivor Network. She said the network is a support group for people who have been shot or the victims’ family members. The organization provides support and public speaking training to members.
She added that the survivor network is “the loneliest club” and something that no one asks to be a part of.
“It’s immeasurable to be able to talk with somebody who has been through the same tragedy that you have been through,” Lugar told The Temple News at the event. “To be a survivor of something like this makes you feel incredibly alone.”
She added that Risher’s “strength and grace” as she shares her story is a constant inspiration.
In 1967, Risher’s mother took her to see Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at a church in Charleston.
Risher said King’s voice sounded like God in her head. Standing in the back of the church, “a seed was planted” and she realized her purpose in life was to speak for others.
“My life dream was to be a politician,” Risher said. “Well, I guess I am now, huh?”
Grace Shallow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Grace_Shallow.