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Turning tragedy into activism

BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. -- Reverend Sharon Risher lost her mom, two cousins, and a childhood friend in the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. She spoke to students at Andrews University in Berrien Springs on Thursday.

“On June 17, 2015, losing my mother and my cousins in the most horrific manner, while praying in a church, because of the color of their skins, has changed my life, my family’s life, and the other eight families in that church, our lives are changed forever,” Risher said.

Close to 800 students filled the Howard Performing Arts Center on Andrews University’s campus to hear Risher’s story.

At the time of the 2015 shooting, the Charleston native was living in Texas and working as a hospital chaplain.

“I wandered around in my apartment in Dallas for two days,” she said in an interview taped before her speech on Thursday. “I didn’t want to turn off the TV because I felt like they got it wrong. This wasn’t real – this wasn’t real.”

Nine black members of the church were shot and killed by a lone white gunman during a bible study in June 2015. The gunman later indicated the murders were racially motivated.

“I stand here today as an accidental activist,” Risher told the audience.

“My main objective is to get people to start to think about things different, to look at people in a different light,” she said in the interview.

You could hear a pin drop at points during Thursday’s speech.

“By hearing this, [it] makes me want to inspire and power people to be different, but also to help others with their walks of life,” said Solange Christmas, a sophomore who attended the event.

“I continue to call their names because they gave their lives for a higher purpose,” Risher told the crowd, honoring her mother, two cousins, a childhood friend, and the five other victims.

“You can’t help but feel that emotion every time,” she said in the interview before the event. “I continue to cry when I give these talks. And I keep asking myself, ‘When are you going to stop crying?’ Well, I don’t think I’ll ever stop crying. Those nine people are gone. And we’re left with their memory. We’re left with why they died.”

Risher said this was her first speaking engagement in southwest Michigan.

She said she will continue traveling the country to tell her story, as long as it feels natural.

When asked about her views on the Second Amendment, Risher said her advocacy work is not aiming to do away with people’s right to legally own a weapon.

“It’s not about taking anything away,” she said. “It’s about reforming and tightening up the laws we already have, that would give people an opportunity to at least feel just a little better about who is able to buy guns and what kind of guns they’re actually able to buy.”

Risher is currently a national spokesperson for Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

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