Rev. Sharon Washington Risher will come to Lehigh to deliver a talk titled “After Charleston: A Family Member’s Hope in the Wake of a National Tragedy.” Risher lost her mother, two cousins and a childhood friend in the June 2015 shooting in Charleston’s iconic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Church. Since that time, she has spoken out about the nation’s gun laws and emerged as a prominent spokesperson for two grassroots advocacy groups: Everytown and Moms Demand Gun Sense.
Risher will speak at 4:10 p.m. Tuesday, March 7, in Baker Auditorium in the Zoellner Arts Center. Her talk is being presented by the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Committee. She is expected to share both her personal experience of losing loved ones to gun violence, racism and hatred, as well as her views on forgiveness and hope for creating a more just world.
“We are pleased and humbled that Rev. Risher will be on campus with us as our 2017 MLK speaker,” said Professor of Religion Studies and University Chaplain Lloyd Steffen. “Rev. Risher is coming to Lehigh not just to talk about racial bigotry and hatred, but to remind us just how destructive such attitudes and emotions can be. She has experienced terrible loss in her life due to violence and racial hatred, and her ability to adopt an attitude of forgiveness in the face of such deep personal tragedy is something that many of us have trouble understanding. We've asked her here to learn from her even as we marvel at her, for she is embodying part of Dr. King's vision of the beloved community and reminding us how demanding on our capacity to love that vision can be.”
James Peterson, associate professor of English and director of Lehigh’s Africana Studies program, said he joins with Steffen in welcoming Risher to Lehigh.
“We are excited and quite fortunate to have this opportunity to host Rev. Fisher,” he said. “Her message of hope in the face of unspeakable racial violence challenges all of us to continue the work of social justice in these troubling times.”
Steffen and Peterson co-chair the committee of faculty, staff and students who plan a year-long slate of programming organized around a central theme, such as social activism and the prison industrial complex.
During the two-year period focused on the issues surrounding incarceration and re-entry, Lehigh hosted panel discussions and lectures, and welcomed scholar and activist Angela Davis; hip hop artist and activist Nas; Sybrina Fulton, the mother of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin; Michael Skolnik, the political director to hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons; Jasiri X, hip-hop artist and activist; Carlito Rodriguez, HBO television writer; NPR host and journalist Michelle Norris; NAACP Criminal Justice Director Niaz Kasravi; and Michelle Alexander, the New York Times best-selling author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness.
In the now infamous Charleston church shooting, self-declared white supremacist Dylann Roof allegedly walked into a church, joined with a prayer group and then calmly shot nine men and women dead. Risher’s mother was among with victims. Roof was charged with 33 federal counts, including hate crimes. The shooting shocked the country, and represented yet one more mass shooting and racially divisive event at a time when the nation was still reeling from a series of high-profile incidents.
In an article on the trial in the New York Times, Risher admitted that she often struggles to come to terms with her “humanness,” or the “passing impulse to crave the execution of the man who murdered her mother, friends and relatives.
“My humanness is being broken, my humanness of wanting this man to be broken beyond punishment,” Risher told the New York Times. “You can’t do that if you really say that you believe in the Bible and you believe in Jesus Christ. You can’t just waver.”
Risher, a native of South Carolina, answered a call to join the ministry in 2002 while attending St. Paul Presbyterian Church in North Carolina. She relocated to Austin, Texas, where she later received a Master of Divinity Degree in 2007 from the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She has worked in full-time hospital chaplaincy since then.
Now a staff chaplain and trauma specialist with Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas, she served as an associate pastor for congregational care for Rice Chapel AME Church. Risher also led the church’s women’s ministries.
She regularly travels around the country to speak about faith, forgiveness, activism and social justice. She has appeared on CNN and BBC Radio and has been interviewed for TIME magazine, Marie-Claire, The Guardian and other publications. She’s also been a guest of former President Barack Obama at the White House, and served as a guest speaker for several Martin Luther King Jr. memorial events.