This morning I woke up in my own bed for the first time after traveling the country, speaking to high-school students about gun violence and the need for stronger gun laws. My daughter Aja made me a beautiful breakfast, and we sat down on the couch to watch TV. The words “breaking news” flashed across the screen as we watched the unfolding coverage of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. At least 17 people shot, including four police officers, and at least 11 people are dead. The shooter, who is now in custody, reportedly shouted “all Jews must die” before opening fire. We looked at each other and neither of us had to say a word. Tears started flowing from my eyes and they haven’t stopped. All of the emotions from June 17, 2015, flooded over me like it was yesterday.
That fateful day will be etched in my soul for eternity. I was working as a trauma chaplain, helping a family whose grandpa had died. When I returned to my office, I had six missed calls from Aja. I knew immediately something was wrong. I called her back, and in a panicked voice, she told me that something happened at Granny’s church. I felt sick. I knew Momma would have been at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. It’s where she was seven days a week, where she’d worked as the church sexton for the previous five years, and where she worshipped as a member of the congregation. Every moment that passed was agonizing. It wasn’t until the middle of the night when another niece called and confirmed what I already knew in my heart: Momma was dead. I hung up the phone and began to scream.
My mother, Mrs. Ethel Lance; my cousins, Tywanza Sanders and Susie Jackson; and my childhood friend Myra Thompson were killed along with five others, including Reverend Clementa Pinckney. My entire life changed in a second. How does one comprehend such devastation? I’m a trauma chaplain, yet all of my training went out the window. I couldn’t believe this could happen to my mother, to all the others.
Growing up, I witnessed and heard of so many racially motivated hate crimes. But never in my life did I think the country would return to such unspeakable acts of violence and intolerance. The AME church shooting would surely be a wake-up call to our nation. But here we are, three years later, and deadly hate crimes continue to be a scourge upon our nation.
Because of our lax gun laws, we have emboldened hatred and armed it to the teeth. In an average year, more than 10,300 hate crimes involve a firearm—more than 28 each day. Of those, over 20 percent were attacks motivated by bias against a religion, most often anti-Semitism or anti-Islamic prejudice. Black Americans like me are also frequent targets. Just this week, two black Americans were shot and killed at a Kroger grocery store in Kentucky, after the shooter attempted to enter a predominantly black church nearby but was stopped by locked doors. We must do more to disarm hate.
Blacks and Jews are inextricably linked because of our history. We have lived through persecution, and we continue to be the targets of hatred and bigotry. With a heavy heart, I stand in solidarity with my sisters and brothers in the Jewish community. To the Tree of Life congregation and the greater Pittsburgh community, I say: I know what you are feeling. I know what you are going through and how real and raw the pain is. But we are not going to lose faith in humanity. For all the craziness and evil that goes on in this world, the majority of people are good-natured and kind-hearted. We will not let them tear us down. Together, we will rise up.
Since my mother and cousins’ deaths, I have devoted my life to advocating for gun violence prevention. I now understand how easy access to guns, when coupled with hate, becomes deadly.
In Pennsylvania and across the country, this terrifying shooting must be a reminder that the status quo is unacceptable. We have an opportunity in less than two weeks to make a change. It’s up to us to elect lawmakers who will put our safety first by supporting common-sense solutions that can save lives. To those who are beholden to the extremist gun lobby, whose campaigns are funded by the NRA and whose answer to gun violence is always more guns, their time is up.
I will continue to cry. I will continue to pray. But as this latest tragedy reminds us, we all must act and we must vote. In the words of the Tree of Life Congregation’s leader Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers, “We deserve better.”
Reverend Sharon Risher became outspoken about the nation’s gun laws after the shooting at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015. Her beloved mother, Ethel Lee Lance, was killed along with eight others, including two cousins and a childhood friend. Sharon is a member of the Everytown Survivor Network and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.