For Such a Time as This (Sharon Risher) -- A Review
FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS: Hope and Forgiveness after the Charleston Massacre. By Sharon Risher with Sherri Wood Emmons. Foreword by Michael W. Waters. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2019. Xv + 127 pages.
On June 17, 2015 a young White Supremacist named Dylan Roof visited a Bible study being held at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. As one might expect the participants in the Study welcomed the young man into their midst. What is different about this story is that when the group stood to pray, Roof pulled out a gun and began shooting. Before he finished his shooting spree nine members of this study group lay dead. Among their number was the congregation’s pastor. This shooting and its aftermath are well known to many Americans, in part because the then-President Barack Obama participated in the funeral service for the congregation’s pastor, breaking into his rendition of Amazing Grace. But the Rev. Clementa Pickney was not alone in dying from this gunman’s rampage. Also among the nine who died that day was Ethel Lance. It is her death that gave rise to the Rev. Sharon Risher’s memoir For Such a Time as This. The book gives us insight into the tragedy that took place on that day, but it brings into focus the humanity present in the story. Ethel Lance was not merely the victim of an act of violence, she was a person with a family, with friends, with a calling. It is a reminder that entire families were affected by this shooting. Lives were changed, in different ways. This is the story of one such family.
I first learned of the book while watching a morning news show. I don’t remember which one, but I was surprised to learn that her story had been published by my denomination’s press. Her testimony impressed me, and so I sought out a review copy. Here is the review of a very personal account that takes us deep into the context of an event that many of us know of but not the full story that goes with it.
If the death of Ethel Lance gives rise to this book, we also hear the story of a daughter and her family and a calling to ministry that changes as a result. The Rev. Sharon Risher was a hospital chaplain in Dallas when news came to her of the shooting at her mother’s church. She had a feeling something bad happened to her mother because her mother was a regular participant in this Bible study. As a chaplain, she had dealt with traumatic events before, but nothing prepares you for an act of violence such as this. As you might expect the book is raw at points. Her account of her own life, her mother’s faith, her call to ministry, the impact of her mother’s death on the family, and a change of focus in ministry all come into view. The reader will be pushed and pulled. You might be made to feel uncomfortable at points. We expect an event like this to bring people together, but sometimes events like this divide families. It can enhance faith and it can challenge it. All of this is present in Risher’s account.
What Rev. Risher does is set the story of her mother's murder in a broader context of family, church, and community. We learn the role that Ethel Lance played in her family’s life, and how devastating it has been to have her removed from the family. As many know families are fragile. We don't all agree on things, and when the glue is removed, that can make difficult situations even more difficult. Such is the case here. There has been division within the family that has yet to be healed. Again we experience the rawness of these events and their broader context.
While Risher tells us about the tragedy of the massacre in Charleston, she also gives voice to her own faith and that of her mother. We learn early on that Risher's mother wasn't always an active church member, but when she found Jesus she immersed herself in the life of the church. She was especially concerned about the way the church building looked, putting in long hours cleaning the building. So it's not surprising that she was present that evening when this study group gathered at the church. This was her life. This is where she spent much of her time. As for the author, she brings her own faith journey into the story. Like her mother, she wasn’t always a believer. She had her own difficult pathway to faith. She had great dreams about her future, one that she thought would involve participation in politics, but she struggled with addiction. Through it all her mother stood with her as an encouraging presence. Therefore, you can understand how deep the loss is for her. Her mother was the glue that held everything together in the family, and when she died that glue was taken away. That is an important theme in the book, which humanizes the story.
The subtitle of the book speaks of hope and forgiveness, and the book is about both. Nevertheless, the path to hope and forgiveness is not a straightforward one. Regarding forgiveness, persons familiar with the story may know that some of the families expressed forgiveness of Dylan Roof early on. It’s important to note that Roof not only didn’t ask for forgiveness but, as we learn in the book, he mocked those who offered him forgiveness. Now the twist in this story is that the first person to offer a word of forgiveness was Risher’s sister Nadine. For her part, Risher, though clergy took much longer to get to that point. That put tension into the relationships among the families and within the family. The discussion of forgiveness that stands at the heart of the book is a reminder that forgiveness is a process and not everyone gets to the same place at the same time. She got there, but it took time and in the end, she didn’t offer Roof forgiveness for his sake (remember he didn’t want it and mocked those who offered it) but for her own spiritual health.
As for hope, it emerges in the form of friendships that emerge in the aftermath of the events. The word of hope is found in Risher’s involvement with efforts to confront racism and gun violence, and the relationships with activists that emerged. Her move to this new focus resulted in part from a recognition that came early on that she simply couldn't return to her chaplaincy position. She had found great joy in her work as a hospital chaplain, but while some might find a new passion from being a wounded healer, she knew she had to take her ministry elsewhere. She simply wasn’t prepared to provide the kind of care that would be required of her. So, she answered a new calling.
The book takes deep into Risher’s own story, which isn’t always pretty. There is addiction and violence and more. The language at times is raw. There are family dynamics that are understandable, but sad to read of. Then there is the reality of the church. Not all faith communities are as supportive as one might hope, and that goes not only for congregations but denominations. There are lessons to be learned here for both.
While much is made of the offers of forgiveness and the process of forgiveness is central to the book. Perhaps the real story is Risher’s discovery of a new calling, and the opportunity she provides us to learn about the work being done across the country to put a stop to gun violence and to move us toward a truly anti-racist reality. What is interesting from the perspective of a reader who is a white male pastor is the intersection of gun violence and racism.
In terms of hope, Risher comes to a sense of peace about her life and calling. She concludes the book with these words:
Through all of the tragedy and hurt, I believe there’s a place called heaven, and that my mom is there—with her mother, and with Terrie and Esther. When I die, I pray that God then will allow me to enter heaven, too, so I will be reunited with the people that I love. And those spirits, those angels, the saints that have come before me. I believe in the power of their goodness to guide me until that day comes. (p. 125).
That is the word of hope. Forgiveness may be difficult to achieve, but hope is still present in the ones we love who precede us in death. That is the message of For Such a Time as This. There is hope despite everything, even a personage of evil like Dylan Roof. He does not have the last word.