The mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh shocked the nation, but had a special resonance for the Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother and two cousins were murdered at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., three years ago.
Risher, 60, had woken up later than usual on Saturday, the morning after a late-night flight from Newburgh, N.Y., to her home in Charlotte, N.C. Her daughter was preparing breakfast when they turned on CNN and discovered that a gunman just opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue. They looked at each other “in amazement,” she said.
“Oh my God. Not again. Not again,” Risher said to herself. She knows people are shot and killed every single day in the U.S. and that she can’t break down every time, but she couldn’t help it this time. The synagogue shooting was just too similar to what her family had suffered on June 17, 2015, when a white supremacist opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“I couldn’t quit crying because I knew automatically what those families were going through. I knew what they were getting ready to face,” Risher told Yahoo News. “Of course, you never want anybody to go through that, to go through those feelings. And that it’s a hate crime makes it even worse because you’re thinking, ‘Why is it that a group of people have to be hated for either the color of their skin or their religion?’”
The synagogue massacre left 11 worshippers dead and two others wounded. Four officers were also injured. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history. For many Americans, it was a wake-up call that anti-Semitism is still alive. For Risher, a member of the Everytown Survivor Network, it was another reminder that mass shootings haven’t led to meaningful gun-control measures.
“My thing is: When will it stop being a wake-up call and be a call to action beyond any action we’ve ever done before? We’ve had wake-up calls. We had Sandy Hook. We had Aurora and Charleston and all the other people that are individually killed by gun violence every day, so what is it going to take?”
The Charleston shooting took the lives of nine African-Americans attending a prayer service. The victims included Risher’s mother, church sexton Ethel Lance, 70; two of her cousins, choir member Susie Jackson, 87, and poet Tywanza Sanders, 26; and her childhood friend, Bible study teacher Myra Thompson, 59. Dylann Roof was convicted on 33 federal hate crime charges and sentenced to death.
Risher said she’s grateful that Obama was president and brought solace after that tragedy, and not Donald Trump. She said she couldn’t imagine the African-American community in South Carolina or people across the country healing with “that kind of temperament in the White House.”
“I don’t know if Charleston would’ve been able to move forward like they did. I don’t know if ‘Amazing Grace’ would’ve come out of Charleston like it did after the tragedy. I pray. I don’t know what it will take for this current administration to understand that there is a gun violence crisis in America. I don’t know what that will take. But whatever that is, I hope that that’s revealed so they can get on board and try to make things change,” she said.
Obama breaking into a rendition of “Amazing Grace” during the memorial service for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney is remembered as one of the most powerful episodes of his presidency. An African-American president appealing to God’s love and mercy in the tradition of the black church, which was central to the civil rights movement, was a unifying moment for many Americans, none more so than the members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church.
“Sir, if my mother was alive, she would have given her right arm to be in the presence of President Obama,” she said. “Having an African-American president at that time, I believe, gave African-Americans hope that we are a part of this. We aren’t just people standing on the sidelines. That we’re involved in government and decision-making, and to have him come showed us that we can continue to have hope, even in the midst of all the darkness.”
Obama delivered the eulogy for Pinckney nine days after the shooting. Trump announced plans to visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday to meet with local Jewish leaders, first responders and victims recovering in hospitals. The Pittsburgh chapter of Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish organization, wrote an open letter to Trump saying he is not welcome in the city until he “fully denounce[s] white nationalism” and stops “targeting and endangering all minorities.”
“Unless people really recognize how devastating gun violence really is … all you could do is hold onto your faith because that’s all we have,” Risher said. “Our hope is knowing that maybe one day, things will turn around.”
On Sunday, congregants at the Emanuel church prayed for the Jewish community and held a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting at a nearby Holocaust memorial.
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