Daughter of Charleston church shooting victim speaks to Savannah - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Daughter of Charleston church shooting victim speaks to Savannah church

Source: WTOC Source: WTOC

The daughter of one of the nine people killed in the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston in 2015 spoke in Savannah about her family's tragedy, gun violence and how those relate to recent clashes in Charlottesville, Va.

Rev. Sharon Risher lost her mother, Ethel Lance, two cousins and a childhood friend in the June 2015 shootings. Originally from Charleston, she shared her story of accidental activism near her hometown at Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church in Savannah Sunday morning.

"This journey that God has me on now, I'm using my voice to get people to understand the personal side of the story of losing my mother and my cousins," Risher said. "Being here in Savannah gives me that opportunity, and I feel like a home(town) girl coming home. Because of the proximity to Charleston, I think people feel connected. The cities are so close, and some of the same history comes out of Charleston that's here in Savannah. "

With a large mural of the victims, her family members, painted by Savannah artist Scott Stanton behind her, Risher spoke about memories of her mother and the last two years.

"Mama was just a no nonsense kind of woman," Risher said. "It's been complicated. It's been lonely. There's been joy. There's been a lot of pain, but through it all, the support from the people that I have spoken to, the support, of course, of my children Aja and Brandon and my immediate family, the Charleston family. I just can't really describe how this journey has been, but the thing that I do know is that people will know their names. People will know that the reason for their deaths is not something we as group, as a whole people, want to happen. That there is more love than there is hate in this world, and that's what kind of keeps me going. Knowing that there is more love than hate, and that I can navigate and my family can navigate through this as we still continue to try to deal with this intense grief and learn how to live a new normal under the circumstances that we were given."

Risher said finding forgiveness for shooter Dylann Roof and sitting through his federal trial have been some of the hardest obstacles she's faced over the last two years.

"It was then (when Roof was found guilty) in that courtroom that I finally knew - I finally knew in my heart - that they were gone, that I wasn't sitting there going through a movie or part of a movie, that this was real," Risher said through tears.

She said she didn't expect to become someone who turned tragedy into triumph, but said speaking about her experience and her family members' lives and deaths is cathartic.

"It is," she said. "I believe because of all the travelling I've done and the speaking I've done, I've had an opportunity to voice emotions. Most of the time, those emotions come out for me through tears. They're not so much tears of grief, but tears of being able to let some of that out, to not hold all of that in my heart and to actually share that grief with others for understanding of how deep this goes. I had to try to connect scripture to really what I thought this whole journey has been for me. That tragedy into triumph, it is kind of what has happened for me because even though I have gone through all of this, meeting so many different people who have been able to share their own stories, who've been able to shed tears with me is so meaningful. Even in the mix of the tragedy, I'm out there. I'm sharing this. We know that there's so much evil and suffering in this world, but God uses, I believe, that evil and suffering for a higher purpose to get people to understand that tragedy doesn't always have to be all encompassing. That if you look beyond just what's there on the surface, there's a higher meaning and purpose to all of it."

Risher's found her purpose in honoring their memories and advocating against gun violence. Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church recognizes each person killed in Savannah by gun violence with an orange ribbon tied to its courtyard fence. It launched this "Ribbons for a Reason" campaign after the Charleston shootings, and like her own story, Risher said it helps personalize the problem.

"I know too well how quickly hate becomes deadly when it's armed," she said. "Individually, this adds up to a whole bunch of people, and to know that people could ride by this church and a visual of that's someone's child or that's someone's parent or cousin or sister or whatever is just phenomenal. I believe in what the church has been doing and what they will continue to do to get the message out that gun violence hurts us all."

Risher said the deadly attacks in Charlottesville, Va. were a stark and emotional reminder of shootings in Charleston.

"Having witnessed everything on TV with Charlottesville and everything, it just really throws you back into an emotional kind of tailspin," Risher said. "Especially because of how it happened and the reason it happened, it just hurt my heart. It just really kind of threw me, but you continue to know, Heather (Heyer) gave her life for, what the nine people in that church gave their lives for a higher purpose. I know first hand how dangerous it is to ignore someone who abuses the Second Amendment for intimidation, like what we had in Charlottesville this past week. We cannot afford to shut our eyes and ears when hate approaches our doorstep. We have marched. We have cried, but Charlottesville reminds us it's time to act. We cannot wait a moment longer."

Risher hopes her speeches foster conversation and understanding among all types of people.

"We just know that we continue to talk about this, that people have feelings, that we are open enough to try to understand someone else's point of view," Risher said. "We all don't have to agree, but we all are humans. We all have hearts. I want people to understand that if we look through our hearts that we could be an advocate for change."

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