Triumph Through Tragedy: Two Warriors Against Gun Violence Found Comfort and Purpose in Each Other

Photo by Matt Sayles
Lucy McBath and Sharon Risher, both of whom have lost family members to gun violence, sat down exclusively with ESSENCE to talk advocacy, gun control and healing

This story originally appeared in the November issue of ESSENCE.

Have you ever spent time with two women whose friendship electrifies the air? You become absorbed into their mutual love and admiration, even if it’s your first time meeting them, and even if that meeting is brief. This is the Lucy McBath and Sharon Risher experience.

The smiles they exchange have been hard-won in a friendship that blossomed from tears. McBath is the mother of Jordan Davis, the bright 17-year-old young man shot by a murderous White patron at a Florida gas station in 2012, and Reverend Risher’s mother, two cousins and childhood friend—Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Tywanza Sanders and Myra Thompson, respectively—were killed in the massacre that robbed the world of nine lives at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last year, an act that was fueled by racial hatred.

In the dry heat of August, McBath and Risher traveled to New Mexico to participate in Gun Sense University, a three-day training conference for volunteers from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and the Everytown Survivor Network, both part of Everytown for Gun Safety. McBath is the faith and outreach leader for the organization, a staff position she carved out for herself to connect to local communities, policy makers and houses of worship. She eventually recruited Risher as a volunteer and together they operate from a faith-based, cultural perspective to minimize the national gun homicide rate. It is work they have been called to do to prevent other families from experiencing tragedies similar to their own. Nearly 350 volunteers and gun violence survivors from 44 states gathered in New Mexico to learn and share best practices to grow the movement in their own communities.

Our blandly decorated meeting room comes alive as McBath and Risher share inside jokes and giggles. McBath accidentally bumps Risher’s leg and says “sorry.” Immediately, as if someone gave them an offstage cue, they break into the chorus of Beyoncé’s “Sorry” and fall into each other, cracking up. The two can’t promise they won’t cry at some point during the interview, but their laughter is evidence of a joy they’ve earned.

ESSENCE: Ms. McBath, why did you contact Rev. Risher after the shooting at Emanuel AME?

LUCY McBATH: Being a Black woman of developed faith, I couldn’t imagine the moral injury that they were feeling having lost their loved ones in church. I regularly write to victims and say who I am and the work that I do, offer them support and let them know even if they never connect with me I’m thinking about them, praying over them and doing everything in my power to make sure these kinds of things don’t happen again. I had written to ten of the survivor families from Emanuel and gotten responses from three, which is a big deal, but a special response from Sharon. We grafted immediately. It was a kindred spirit because we both have su ered so much in the same way. Our deep love for God grafted us even more.

REV. SHARON RISHER: When I got back to Dallas after being in Charleston for the funeral, I received a batch of mail. [As I was reading Lucy’s letter] tears started to  ow. She was like, “If you ever need to talk, just call me.” And that’s what I did. I called her and we prayed and we cried and from that point, I knew that I had somebody who understood how I felt and had been going through the same thing. I say that God put us together.

ESSENCE: Before meeting each other, did you each have someone in your lives who had gone through the same kind of loss that you had?

McBATH: I work with survivors. There are some I call my “survivor sisters” and I love them dearly, but there was something even more special about Sharon. She’s a pastor and I gravitated to her heart because I felt like, This woman serves people every day. She’s praying over them and supporting them as much as she possibly can, and now she has been morally injured. I just felt as though I had to try to pour into her because she’s always pouring out. RISHER: I was in Dallas by myself with no family and here this lady is reaching out to me, and when I call her, it’s just like automatic love. It was like, Thank you, God, for sending somebody to me. I worked as a trauma chaplain, so I’m used to pouring into other people. But somebody wanted to help me. We don’t speak every day, but I know she’s there. I feel closer to Lucy than I feel to my own sister.

ESSENCE: How did you each go from being regular women to becoming public advocates?

McBATH: For me, I don’t have a choice. This has to be done. Now I know who I am and I know why I was born. God has spoken to me candidly and clearly. Right after Jordan died, for the first eight weeks, I was in another world. I was on Earth, but I wasn’t. God was speaking into me and showing me story after story of common men and women in the Bible that He used. I truly believe we have been chosen as vessels to save a whole nation of people, but more specifically, our people. I don’t know why. Only God knows. 

RISHER: I’m humbled to have the opportunity to use this lil’ ol’ Geechee voice to bring awareness to such a heartfelt and needed platform. It’s not about being a Bible-thumper. It’s knowing what you have in you, what God has put in you, and being able to use all those tools to get the message across in a way that shows love, peace, joy, mercy, grace and humility, to let people know that you can still be a person of great faith, but there is a cause out here that needs to be addressed and we’re going to address it.

ESSENCE: Michael Dunn was found guilty of murdering Jordan and is now serving a life sentence. Dylann Roof is facing the death penalty for the slaughter at Emanuel AME. Have you forgiven them?

McBATH: I remember walking past St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan after one of the first big national interviews I ever had. I just felt so drawn like, I’ve got to go into the church. I sat in a pew and cried for an hour, but all the while, I really felt as though I was being cleansed and God was saying, “You have to forgive.” I was wrestling with Him, like Please don’t make me forgive Michael Dunn. I love you, I would do anything for you, but I can’t forgive him. At the end of that time, I knew I had. I’ve told him so, because I truly believe I could not be sitting here, doing what God has given me to do, without complete and utter forgiveness. I pray for him. I don’t pray he’ll tell me he’s sorry. I don’t look for that. His forgiveness has to come from God.

RISHER: See, I’m on a whole other thing. I’m still on that journey of forgiveness. What Dylann Roof did has put a hole in my soul and the soul of America. I don’t personally believe in the death penalty. Even though he did this to my family, I still wouldn’t want him put to death. But I’ll go along with what the judicial system decides for him. God is a forgiving God and He gives us grace and mercy, so He allows me to go through my journey of not forgiving him yet and still feel good about myself. For a while I felt really bad. My sister was one of the first persons, 48 hours after he killed them, to go on national TV and extend forgiveness like she was talking for my family. I was sitting there in Dallas because I hadn’t even gotten to Charleston yet, and I was like, What? I don’t feel bitter. I know I’m going to get to forgiveness, but I’m not going to let anybody rush me. When the trial starts, I’ll sit in that courtroom every day. At first I said I wasn’t. But if my mom died from seven bullets in her body, I can sit in that courtroom.

ESSENCE: What changes do you want to see to strengthen gun violence prevention?

McBATH: We’ve got to get our state and local legislators on board—changing their mindsets, getting them to understand how important it is—because that’s where all the power is. Those legislators are the ones crafting and passing laws because of the in uence of the NRA gun lobby. We talk to civic leaders, we hold rallies, we do press conferences, we visit churches. We’re not against the Second Amendment or people having guns. You absolutely should be able to protect your family if you need to. But there are people using their guns illegally, including Stand Your Ground, like in my case. Just because you’re given the authority to use a gun doesn’t mean you can use it on a presumption of fear.

We want to make sure that people aren’t able to go online and buy guns without a federal background check. We want to make sure that gun sellers are licensed. We need to make sure we’re keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people—felons and domestic abusers. 

RISHER: That’s what happened with my family and my church family. That loophole gave Dylann Roof—I even hate to speak his name—the opportunity to buy that gun. He would have been prevented from buying that gun, but because of the law that was in place, the background check wasn’t completed in three days and the seller legally had the authority to sell him that gun.

ESSENCE: There are families who are victims of gun violence and their stories never make national news. How can they be heard?

McBATH: Doing the advocacy. The work that we do is a tremendous way for us to help refocus a lot of that pain. But first and foremost, survivors have to give themselves time. We push aside the grieving process because it hurts so bad, so we substitute it by being the advocate. I always tell survivors, Don’t stand up yet. Give yourself time, because most of us have stood up right away and then, somewhere along the way, we begin to crash because we haven’t done the self-care and processing of what has happened.

RISHER: Four people who affected my life are gone and I really don’t think I’ve given myself a chance to grieve everybody because it’s been so hard just to grieve for Mama. Now, more than a year later, I’m really dealing with the grief and it’s hard, but my girl right here, Lucy, I can call on her. There are several other people I can call. So now I’m trying to grieve and feel what I feel.

ESSENCE: Rev. Risher, has the shooting affected your ability to physically be in church and be present while you’re there?

RISHER: Yes. My mom loved that church. God took her in a place that she loved more than anything. Her thing was always, “I want to see Jesus,” and I know, on that night, she did. I rest knowing that. Now, I’ll say this: My church attendance has not been as faithful. Not that I’ve had any doubts about my faith, but I feel as if people are watching me. But last Sunday, God said, “You need to get your butt up and go to church.” I got dressed, I called Uber and I went. I was so glad that I did. I’ll get back into the groove, but here again I’m taking my time, doing what I need to do for me.

ESSENCE: Ms. McBath, how have you carried on Jordan’s spirit?

McBATH: Loving. I used to always say to Jordan, “We’re supposed to be our brother’s keeper.” So that’s what I try to live out every single day, even at the foundation I created, The Walk With Jordan Scholarship Foundation, which was based on discussions that I had with him. When he moved with his father, he would call and say, “Mom, these kids down here, they’re just as bright, they’re just as smart, but because we’re going to a predominantly Black school, they’re never going to get scholarships or go to Ivy League schools. They’re probably just going to go to community colleges.” When we went to receive his high school diploma, that’s exactly what it was and he was angry about that. I now give scholarship opportunities, money and mentoring to young Black males. I’m not looking for the straight-A student. I’m looking for kids like Jordan—average kids who may never receive funding and mentoring to become champions in the making. That’s Jordan’s legacy. The biggest teacher I’ve ever had about how to walk out my faith has been my child.

ESSENCE: What are you planning for yourself, in this work and beyond?

McBATH: I feel as if I’m still parenting. Even though Jordan isn’t physically here, he’s here with me spiritually. I still have to protect my boy’s legacy. I have to make sure that no one is going to tarnish it. But I’m also a parent to other Black males. Now I feel like I’m a mother of many. God keeps sending them to me. They call me “Mama Lucy.” They call for advice and encouragement. I feel like I’m drafting them and helping them find the space to do what they need to do the way they need to do it, but to help preserve their lives.

RISHER: Part of my job is to pay Lucy’s mentoring forward, because we know this is not going to go away, even though we want it to. So I’ll mentor somebody else. I just want to continue to lift up those nine people in that church. I’ll continue to fight that fight, wherever it takes me, so nobody will forget them. I will do that until I take my last breath.

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