REV. Sharon Risher’s trip to Savannah was planned months before the recent events in Charlottesville. But before she left home, she had to make an important phone call.
“I’ve been talking all morning with Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother,” said Rev. Risher of reaching out to the family of the young woman killed on Aug. 12 by a white supremacist driving an SUV.
“I wanted to her to know from someone with experience that I know her pain and grief, and that her life will continue to matter against racism and hate.”
Rev. Risher lost several loved ones, including her mother, Ethel Lance, when radicalized white supremacist and neo-Nazi sympathizer Dylann Roof gunned down nine people at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015.
In the difficult two years since, she has found herself an unlikely public figure, speaking out against racism and gun violence in the national media and to congregations around the country. She is a vocal representative of Everytown and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, advocating for reformed gun policies and social justice.
“I’m just a little Geechee girl from the Lowcountry. I call myself an accidental activist,” she told the several hundred folks gathered on Sunday at Savannah’s Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church, many fanning themselves in the wake of a broken AC unit.
“It is my life’s mission to help other people know that hate won’t win.”
In her introduction, Asbury’s Rev. Jeanette Purvis pointed out that while Rev. Risher had grown up in Charleston, this was the reverend’s first visit to Savannah. It was also the first time she got to meet Scott “Panhandle Slim” Stanton in person, though the two have maintained a strong online friendship ever since Stanton painted his iconic portraits of the nine victims and brought them to Mother Emanuel Church in the days after the tragedy.
“I love that Scott Stanton,” called the reverend from the podium, pointing to the artist and his wife in the mezzanine.
The colorful portraits hung behind Rev. Risher as she addressed Asbury’s congregation and guests, covering topics from gun law reform to the death penalty to the difficult necessity of forgiveness. The words had particular resonance in the weeks following the events in Charlottesville.
“I know too well how quickly hate becomes armed, and we have seen abuses of the Second Amendment used for purposes of intimidation,” she admonished, pointing to lax policies that allow easy access to guns.
“People who are filled with malice and hate use their guns as weapons.”
The minister spoke of the harrowing federal trial during which Roof was indicted and found guilty on 33 counts, including first degree murder and hate crimes. Roof was sentenced to death in January.
“I was not a proponent of the death penalty. I don’t believe that we as humans have the right to take the life of someone else,” she said.
“I’m so glad that decision was not left up to me.”
But Rev. Risher told the crowd that she still struggles with absolution. While some of her relatives professed their forgiveness of Roof immediately after his horrific crimes, Rev. Risher confessed that even as a person of faith, it has not been easy to feel mercy for her mother’s murderer.
“I’ve had to search my heart. I’ve wrestled with forgiveness,” she said, recounting how parishioners first invited Roof to join them and then tried to run and hide as he sprayed bullets throughout the church.
“With God’s help I’ve come to the conclusion that I will go the road I’m meant to go. You must allow yourself to feel what you feel.”
The racism and radical white supremacy that spurred Dylann Roof to shoot a group of men and women after they led him in Bible study continues to find purchase in society, evidenced by the recent events in Charlottesville. Rev. Risher offered hope for a united front against hatemongers and remains steadfast in the effort to reform gun policy.
“It’s time to act,” implored the “accidental activist,” reminding that 93 Americans are killed every day by guns.
“The call to action is upon us.”