MONTVILLE, NJ - “Forgiveness is a process," said Rev. Sharon Washington Risher, a woman who lost relatives in the shooting massacre at the Mother Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. Risher was one of 53 speakers to present at “Living Lessons: Voices, Visions and Values” at Montville’s Lazar Middle School on Thursday, May 16.
Risher told the students that her mother, Ethel Lee Lance, church sexton, was killed on a hot spring night by Dylann Roof, a 21-year old white supremacist. Roof also killed eight others, including two of Risher’s cousins and a childhood friend.
Risher explained that on that night, church members were having an important meeting, and afterwards, twelve members gathered in the fellowship hall to begin Bible study. As the Bible study began, the church members welcomed a white man to their group. Since this church is one of the oldest in South Carolina, it is a tourist site, so it was not unusual to have someone drop in. This young man asked to sit next to Rev. Clementa Pinckney, senior pastor of the church and state senator. The meeting began with a discussion on chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark, the parable of the sower and the mustard seed. At the end of the meeting, everyone was in a circle holding hands and praying when Roof pulled out a gun from his backpack and started shooting.
He shot Rev. Pinckney first. Others tried to scatter and hide. Roof sought them out and shot them. Risher’s mother was shot seven times, and her 87-year-old cousin, Susie Jackson, was shot eight times. Her 26-year-old cousin, Tywanza Sanders, was shot but not killed instantly. He asked Roof, “Why?” Roof answered, “I have to do it.” Then he proceeded to shoot him again, this time killing him. Sanders’ mother and his five-year-old niece survived the shooting by pretending to be dead. Five individuals survived the shooting. Three of them were in the Bible study. The other two were in the church.
Risher was not in Charleston at the time. She was working as a trauma chaplain at a hospital in Dallas, Texas. One of her nephews called Risher’s daughter, Aja, and said, “Something bad has happened at grammy’s church.” But no one knew exactly what happened. It wasn’t until much later that they found out what occurred. Risher said, “I screamed. I will never forget that night, and I was 1700 miles away from my family.” She immediately arranged to get back to Charleston.
The morning after the attack, Roof was caught in North Carolina because a woman, who worked in a floral shop, recognized the car from police photos and reported it.
At Roof’s arraignment, the judge asked the family to make a comment. Risher’s sister said, “I forgive you.” Risher became very angry at her sister for saying this and couldn’t believe that her sister’s comment came from her heart. “I screamed again. How do you forgive someone who shot your mother seven times?” said Risher.
However, Risher said that she finally came to understand that God used her family to set the tone for the city and the nation on how to react to such a horrible act. She mentioned the Ferguson and Baltimore riots that ended in more violence. She believes her family’s forgiveness saved the city and nation from the same fate. “Guns and violence tear communities apart,” she said.
It took Risher two years before she was able to reconcile her feelings towards this terrible act of violence. She stated, “I was preaching in Virginia on Oct. 2017 when God tapped me on the shoulder, and I was able to forgive him.”
She emphasized to the students that forgiveness is a process that one must to go through. “Don’t say it if you don’t believe it,” she said. As a person of faith, she was able to pray to get rid of the anger and get through it, but she said, “It is up to you.”
She also emphasized to the students that if something is bothering them, they need to find someone to talk to. “Maybe if Roof had someone to talk to and express his feelings to, maybe this would not have happened,” she added.
The family had to sit through 15 days of the trial, where Roof sat only a few feet away from them. Risher said that Roof sat there as if nothing was fazing him. “He had a dead look in his eyes,” she said.
When the trial was over and everyone was waiting for the verdict, Risher said, “As a black person, I was afraid the verdict would come back not guilty.” But less than five hours later, Roof was found guilty of 33 charges of hate crimes.
When it was time for the victim’s statement, Risher spoke and said, “I pray that one day in your cell nine spirits come to you, and you can confess everything and ask God for grace and mercy as it is given to all of us who believe.”
Risher does not believe in the death penalty, but one of her sisters does. When it was time for sentencing both sisters respected and understood each other, and they waited for the sentencing. Roof received the death penalty.
Risher expressed that something like this “stays in your soul. You can never forget your experiences. God has elevated me to speak out. God has given me a message that whatever life throws at you, you need to find a place of peace. You have to work on it.” She said that God takes tragedies and makes it so there are lessons to be learned, and we need to share them with others. “Never give up on humanity. Not everyone is bad and evil like is portrayed in the news. More good stuff is going on. Trust your gut to do the right thing. Don’t allow yourself to be led astray. Be willing to be kind and compassionate,” she stated.
She told the students that one day they will be leaders and will have to help other people, and they need to know that there is goodness in diversity
She stated that Charleston was not just an attack on blacks but on Christian faith.
“I want you to be grounded in good things like kindness and compassion.” She continued to say that “it takes a lot of work. Rely on faith. Life is hard. You are young, and you know what you believe.”
She told the students, “Each one of you is a good person and worthy of all good things. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. God bless each and every one of you.”
A question was asked about Roof’s parents. Risher said that he came from a broken home of a middle class family. His grandfather was a well-known local lawyer. Risher stated that Roof did not want any of his family at the trial. His mother did come one day, but she had a heart attack and had to leave the courtroom. His grandparents did come one day.
After the trial, Risher did get a letter from Roof’s grandfather stating how terribly sorry he was for his grandson’s actions. Risher took the letter and threw it to the side. She still was angry, but she said the Spirit of God allowed her to pick up the letter and read it with an open heart. She became aware that his family was hurting too, and she felt sorry for them.
When asked if Roof planned this attack, she said that it was premeditated. He had come to the church before and knew exactly where the meetings would be held.
Seventh graders Eli Kaufman and Max Iaci said that Risher’s presentation was very emotional and informative since it was a first-hand experience. They also said that they heard her stress to reach out for help.
“I learned to forgive more,” seventh grader Alessio Gulla said about Risher’s presentation. “Even though the boy killed her mother, she still forgave him and didn’t want him to die from the death penalty.”
Risher told TAPinto Montville that the day before she had been in Washington, D.C. to see the screening of the documentary titled “Emanuel - The Untold Story of the Victims and Survivors of the Charleston Church Shooting.” She said that the film had made her very emotional, and those emotions were still with her this day at Living Lessons. The documentary will be in limited theaters, including AMC Rockaway and AMC Wayne, at 7 p.m. on June 17 and 19 only.
Risher has written a book called “For Such a Time as This.” It will be released in June, coinciding with the four year anniversary of the shooting.
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