Rev: Prayer not enough to stop gun massacres

Garrett Neese/ Daily Mining Gazette Rev. Sharon Washington Risher, whose sister was one of nine people fatally shot in a 2015 South Carolina church shooting, speaks at the Rozsa Center Wednesday.

HOUGHTON — It had become a rapidly solidifying cycle: a mass shooting, followed by tweets of “thoughts and prayers” from elected officials with no legislative follow-up. Rev. Sharon Washington Risher has gotten fed up with it.

“As I’ve said time and time again, prayers and vigils are not enough,” she said. “We have to take action in a real way. We need prayers with feet, prayers with action, boots on the ground. For too long, change has been disillusioned by the Washington gun lobby and by leaders who refuse to take common-sense steps that will save lives through gun law reform and legislation that will bring common-sense gun laws to protect all.”

Risher spoke at the Rozsa Center Wednesday as part of the Rozsa’s Van Evera Distinguished Lecture Series.

Risher is a self-described “accidental activist” who became a public gun control advocate after the killings at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. Nine people in a Bible study group were killed. They included Risher’s mother, Ethel Lee Lance, who served as the church’s sexton. Two of her cousins, Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders were also killed. So was her childhood friend Myra Thompson.

“I pray that whenever you hear their names, or see their names in print, that something will touch your heart,” Risher said.

She remembered her mother as a woman of faith, who once took her to watch Martin Luther King Jr. speak.

Lance also loved dancing around the house to reggae and James Brown, not to mention cooking gumbo.

Risher opposed the death penalty for the shooter because she believed killing people is wrong, and because of the death penalty’s disproportionate impact on black people. But there were still times she wished him dead, watching him giggle during the confession video or listening to the autopsy report.

He was found guilty on all 33 counts.

“In my angry heart, I wanted him dead,” she said. “But my own faith convictions took over my heart and mind, and I could hold firm to not wanting the death penalty.”

At the first bond hearing after the murders, Risher’s sister had offered her forgiveness to the shooter. But Risher couldn’t. The soundbites and homilies about forgiveness just agitated her.

“I had to feel what I felt and go on,” she said. “I was not going to hop on the forgiveness bandwagon.”

She reached it in her own time last October, while preaching in Martinsville, Virginia for World Communion Sunday.

“I found myself preaching about forgiveness, and with tears rolling down my face, I said out loud that I forgave him,” she said. “…It didn’t come as a big epiphany, but it settled in my soul.”

One reform Risher favors is the closure of South Carolina’s “Charleston loophole,” which allows the sale of a gun if a background check is not completed within three days. The shooter did not pass his check — a denial that came back two weeks after the murders.

“If that system had worked properly, dare we say that he might not have been able to buy that gun, and to kill those nine people?” she said. “I continue to work because the only way things are going to be able to change is if we get with our legislators and our people in Washington.”

To get a group of people together that bridge political divides, Risher said, “You get a group of people together, and you just start talking.”

“We want to make it so hard when it’s not hard. It’s just about being able to share your heart with someone else.”