Voices: Sharon Risher

“If putting him to death would bring my mama back, I’d want him dead. But that won’t happen, so what’s the point of killing him? I’m just trying to do the best I can and honor the memory of my mama. I believe in my heart she wouldn’t want this boy put to death.”
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“I’m still not at the point where I can say I fully forgive him.”

The man Rev. Sharon Risher cannot forgive is Dylann Roof, who is accused of killing nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. in June of last year. Risher’s mother, Ethel Lance, and two cousins, Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, were three of those killed.

What makes Risher’s story different from that of many other victims’ families, though, is that while she hasn’t forgiven her mother’s killer, she doesn’t want the 22-year-old Roof to be executed. “If putting him to death would bring my mama back, I’d want him dead,” she says. “But that won’t happen, so what’s the point of killing him? I’m just trying to do the best I can and honor the memory of my mama. I believe in my heart she wouldn’t want this boy put to death.”

Roof allegedly confessed after his arrest that he killed the nine people, all of whom were African-American and were there for Bible study, because he was hoping to start a “race war.” He was subsequently charged with nine counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder, and federal hate crime charges, and is facing the death penalty.

A few days after his arrest, Risher was at home in Texas, packing for her trip to Charleston for the funerals. She watched on television as Roof appeared at a bail hearing by video conference. Relatives of some of the victims were in the courtroom, and told Roof they forgave him. Risher’s sister was one of them. A thousand miles away, alone in her Dallas home, Risher says she was shocked. “I screamed,” she says. “I couldn’t understand how she could forgive him, 48 hours after it happened. I couldn’t believe it, I just couldn’t believe she said that.

“I’m not in the same emotional space where I was a year ago. . . . a lot of the anger and bitterness has subsided. It’s tempered now and my heart is still wanting to get there. But I’m not there yet. It just seems so hard to be able to forgive someone who planned that whole thing.”

Risher grew up in Charleston in a family of five children, four girls and a boy. Their mother was the center of their universe. “She was a very happy-go-lucky kind of person. Always willing to help somebody. She didn’t like chaos, she didn’t like conflict.”

Ethel Lance was a sexton at the church, a job she took in 2007 after retiring from the City of Charleston. Risher says her mother loved the church, and often spent her own money fixing it up. She thinks about the night of the murder, the group gathered together to study the Bible, and Roof showing up at the door. “I can see my mama, greeting him, welcoming him, so proud of her church, telling him to come in and hear the word of God.”

Risher is an ordained nondenominational minister, but says her conviction that the death penalty is wrong is not based on her training, but on her personal beliefs. “I don’t believe we have the right to say someone should be put to death for his crimes. Even though Dylann Roof killed my mother and cousins, I don’t think killing him will solve anything.” She says her hope is that “one day Dylann Roof will be able to open his heart and accept Jesus Christ. He can’t do that if he’s dead.”

Risher has moved to North Carolina to be near her son and daughter who live there. More than a year after her mother and cousins died, her grief is still raw. “Some days I don’t even want to get out of bed. Every step you take forward in healing, something happens that throws you right back,” she says. “I belong to the loneliest club, a club nobody wants to be a member of.”

She has found a cause that has helped her heal, and given her purpose. She became a spokesperson for Everytown for Gun Safety, and Moms Demand Gun Sense, two gun control advocacy groups, after she received a letter from Lucy McBath, a spokesperson for Everytown. McBath had lost her son in a shooting in Florida in 2012, and the two women forged a bond in their grief and their determination to do whatever they can to get common-sense gun laws in place.

“I don’t want other people to have to suffer like I did. I don’t want others to spend the rest of their lives wanting to get something back that they’ll never get back,” Risher says.

Her mother is never far from her thoughts. Ethel Lance loved perfume, Risher says, “and that comes from working as a housekeeper for white families in Charleston. She learned about perfume from the people she worked for, and she always had fine perfumes. It was something I was around all my life. She had four daughters, and she would spray us, so we all smelled the same. ‘Isn’t God sweet?’, she’d say. I still smell her. I still smell Mama.”

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