I tried to read Rev. Sharon Risher’s memoir in bars and coffee shops, like I normally do for this column.
But “For Such a Time as This,” which chronicled Risher’s personal account of the months following the Charleston Massacre, called for the type of revenant silence you can only find when you’re completely alone.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof walked into the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and murdered nine people because they were black. Most can recall the headline along with the subsequent grief,
outrage and political division on gun laws and the death penalty.
But for Risher, who lost her mother, two cousins, and a childhood friend that day, this mass shooting was a turning point, a catalyst, and the ultimate test of her faith.
The book begins on June 17, then quickly pivots to Risher’s life growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, during the ’60s and ’70s with her mother, father and four siblings. Risher describes her mother, Mrs. Ethel Lee Lance, as a hardworking, no nonsense type of parent. While she forbid a young Sharon from attending a James Brown concert at County Hall, she happily accompanied her to hear Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the same location.
Risher and her mother start attending Mother Emanuel AME Church in 1974. They went to church several times a week for regular services, Bible studies and fundraisers. Risher wonders if her mother thought of the church as an escape from Risher’s father, who she describes as a functioning alcoholic. After Sharon went to college in Charleston, married and eventually moved to Dallas, Mrs. Lance continued going to Mother Emanuel. She was an usher for decades, and was eventually hired on as a sexton.
Risher imagines her mother would’ve been so proud to show Roof the church, her church. He attended the Bible study session several times before the massacre, scouting it out. On June 17, when Roof shot her, Mrs. Lance’s cell phone fell out of her pocket, and a survivor later used it to call 911.
The remainder of the book takes the reader through Risher’s grieving process, the struggle to keep her family afloat, Roof’s trial, and Risher’s rise as a public figure. Unsurprisingly, the memoir is heavily religious. Often Risher speaks directly to God, asking him to see her through the bereavement and anger, and help her come to forgiveness on the other side.
I found it difficult to understand Risher’s willingness to forgive Roof
. But I’m certain that fault lies with me, and not in her retelling of the story. She disagreed with the death penalty from the beginning, but thanked God for taking the decision out of her hands. Roof was sentenced to death in 2017.
The writing shines the brightest in the surreal courtroom scenes: family of the victims sitting a few feet from the murderer in court and noticing the racist symbols he’d drawn on his shoes; the way Roof refused to look at the family members as they spoke to him; the bitter humor the family uses to survive the trial. “Now if I aim this shoe just right,” they joke, “I could hit him upside the head.” I laughed when I read it, not because it was particularly funny, but because just like the family members sitting in court that day, I needed a laugh.
I also appreciated Risher’s honesty in regards to Mother Emanuel AME Church’s suspect use of donations following the tragedy, as well as the pain she felt when the church’s pastors didn’t reach out to offer their support. It would’ve been easy to point fingers, but the author reminds you in every chapter that everyone in the situation—from Roof and his lawyers, to her family members and members of the church—are not only human, but also children of God.
Risher was born and raised in Charleston. She attended Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where she earned her masters of divinity. Risher is a former hospital chaplain and trauma specialist who now dedicates her life to being an advocate for gun law reform. She is a spokesperson for Everytown Survivor Network and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Ariel Felton received her B.F.A. in English from Valdosta State University and her M.F.A. in writing from SCAD. Her writing has been published in The Progressive, The Bitter Southerner, Scalawag, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Under the Gum Tree, Savannah Magazine and more.