This pastor lost her mother to a white supremacist's hatred, but her faith helped her find peace.
Posted in , Nov 26, 2019
I made the trip from Charlotte to Charleston, South Carolina, full of dread. I didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to sit through the trial of the man who’d killed my mother at the church she loved, didn’t want to be in the same room with him. She’d gone to church for the Wednesday night Bible study, as always, and been gunned down along with eight other innocent souls. We’d waited a year and a half, and now, just before Christmas, the trial would begin. Justice would be served—or so I hoped. I’ve got to keep myself together, I told myself. For Momma.
The courtroom was small. There was room only for the victims’ immediate families. The prosecution team had talked to us beforehand, telling us what to expect, giving us a crash course in courtroom decorum. No outbursts. No running out mid-proceeding. But how could anything prepare me for what I knew I would have to see and hear, reliving those terrifying final moments of Momma’s life?
She was the last person shot, the last one to die that day, June 17, 2015, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—or Mother Emanuel as we called it. She had witnessed all the violence, then been gunned down by the white supremacist killer. Anger surged through me at the thought of it.
A chaplain prayed with us. I didn’t envy his job. I’m a minister myself. I worked as a hospital chaplain, helping people deal with the trauma of illness, accidents, gun violence. Now the prayers would be for me. I didn’t want to be overcome by hate in the wake of a hate crime. I wanted to hold on to my faith, hold fast to God, but it was so hard. Especially now.
We sat in our seats, girding ourselves. The killer came in. He kept his head down, never looking at us. He sat, hardly moving, his posture erect. There was no sign of regret, no remorse. A shiver went through me. He was only 15 feet away, but it was impossible to bridge the gulf between us. I wanted to understand why he did what he’d done, what awful thing had motivated him, but there was no comprehending. I felt as if I were in the presence of pure evil.
The pastor of Mother Emanuel, Rev. Clementa Pinkney, had been one of those killed. His wife, Jennifer, was the first to testify. She’s soft-spoken, gracious. She told everyone how she had come into the fellowship hall earlier that evening to say hello to the folks at the Bible study. Then gone into the pastor’s office with their daughter.
That’s where she was when the gunfire began. How terrifying that must have been for her. She and her daughter moved to an adjoining office and locked the door. They crouched under a desk as shot after shot was fired. They heard the killer try to get in the locked office.
I thought I already knew a lot of the details about what had happened that day, but sitting through the court testimony was torturous. We were shown pictures of the crime scene, images of bloody, lifeless bodies. How would I ever get them out of my mind? Would I ever stop having nightmares about them? We watched a video of the killer talking to FBI agents the day after the shooting. He laughed when he admitted he’d shot those people. Pure evil.
The killer actually visited the church three times before the shooting, scouting it out. When he arrived at the Bible study that night, the people there invited him in. I could picture Momma giving him a warm welcome, reaching out, telling him to come and hear the word of God at the place it spoke to her.
He sat with the group for almost an hour. It was only when the members stood and bowed their heads to pray that he took out an .45 Glock semiautomatic and started shooting, stopping only to reload.
There were three survivors in that room. One of them was my cousin Felicia Sanders. Lying in her son’s blood, she survived by smearing blood all over her clothes and spreading herself over her 11-year-old granddaughter and playing dead. She saved them both.
The other one was Polly Sheppard. We listened to her heartbreaking testimony. After the killer had shot everybody, he turned to her as she wept and prayed aloud. “Shut up!” he said. This young man, so filled with hate, so filled with evil, told her he wouldn’t shoot her. “I’m going to leave you to tell the story.” He wanted her to be the lone witness.
Prosecutors shared Momma’s autopsy report. We had to hear about the many bullets that hit her; I could feel them as if they were hitting my own flesh. As we left the court, reporters surged around us. “Rev. Risher, can you give us a comment?” they said. “Just a few words.”
I wanted to get away, escape the images in my head. I found myself clinging to any detail that could offer a shred of comfort. Witnesses told how Momma’s cell phone had fallen out of her pocket and slid across the floor. It was the phone that Polly Sheppard used to call 911. Momma’s phone. A link to help even after her death.
We out-of-towners were put up at the Residence Inn. I was grateful to be able to bring my dog, Puff Daddy, to stay with me. I couldn’t have afforded to board him back home in Charlotte. Moreover, I needed his company, needed the excuse to rush back to the hotel and take him out for a walk. “Rev. Risher, give me a few minutes,” a reporter would say.
No, I had to be with my beloved dog.
The day came when I had to speak. I felt sick to my stomach, but I knew I had to do it. The shooting made me think hard about capital punishment for the first time in my life. Before Momma’s death, I would have said that a killer like hers, someone who had done something so heinous, deserved to die. But I’d been praying about it and reading about it. Killing this killer wouldn’t solve a thing. It wouldn’t kill the hate. It wouldn’t bring Momma back. She wouldn’t have wanted him to die.
I said all that for Momma.
On December 15, the jury went into deliberations. Two hours later, we were called back to hear the verdict: guilty on all counts. Family members hugged each other and cried. Part of me wanted to celebrate too, but I was so weary. And we still had to get through Christmas. Another Christmas without Momma.
In January, we were back in court for the sentencing. The prosecutors read from the journal that the killer had written in jail: “I would like to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.” No regret, no remorse.
Relatives of those innocent people were allowed to speak. My cousin Felicia held up her blood-smeared Bible from the night of the shooting. “It reminds me of the blood Jesus shed for me and you,” she said to the killer. “May God have mercy on your soul.” When it came my turn, I stared at him. He didn’t look back—I knew he couldn’t—but I knew he heard every word. “I pray,” I said, “that before your life is over, you will call on the name of Jesus for mercy.”
I also prayed for peace, for God’s guidance, and that whatever happened would be in God’s hands. The jury ultimately recommended the death penalty. It was over.
I returned to my new calling, what had come to me now: to speak out about gun violence. To tell how, when I was a youngster, Momma had called me down to Charleston’s County Hall to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speak powerful words of love and forgiveness, to know that I’d been called to speak too.
A couple weeks after the trial, I addressed a group at Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina, for their Martin Luther King, Jr., Day observance. I wore a green dress to the occasion because green was Momma’s favorite color. The deeper work, though, had to be internal. I’d heard a preacher once, on a roll, tell his congregation that forgiveness should be instant. We could all do it at the drop of a hat. I beg to differ. I’d been praying and working at it, but I also knew, as someone who has struggled with depression, that anger couldn’t just be buried. It was too dangerous. Momma’s death and all that had happened since, all that I’d felt during the trial, couldn’t just be swept aside. I wasn’t going to run away from it. I could move forward only with God’s help.
Then one day, in church, I felt this warmth spread over me and words as though God were whispering to me: “Okay, it’s time. You’ve done all the work. You’re ready to get past this, to get past all this anger, this hurt.”
Hate is a fact of this world. But so is love. So is justice. Hate is a fire that feeds off its own flames. That night at Mother Emanuel, it erupted in the form of a racist gunman with a semiautomatic weapon who killed nine godly people, including my beloved mother. But her goodness and love did not die with her. It lives in me. It lives in all of us who turn to God. Love lives in the world, and it can save us from hate.
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