As a man of faith, I grieve with the Sutherland Springs, Texas, congregation that was decimated when 26-year-old Devin Kelley walked in to their refuge, their place of worship, their solace, and shattered the atmosphere of peace.
Kelley’s was the vilest of sins. Whether he acted out of a sense of personal vengeance or a desire to terrorize, he lashed out against the people of God, and did so during a time of worship. He sinned with a reckless disregard for the fact that he stood on holy ground. And for that, God will deal with him.
I can’t imagine the heartache that the First Baptist Church is experiencing, but there are others who can. Others who’ve had loved ones cut down by bullets, or seen children pulverized, or watched buildings burned to embers, and all on holy ground. Those people — members of black churches that have been attacked by people just as hateful as Kelley — are intimately familiar with the intersection of faith and violence.
It is those people who can best tell the congregation of Sutherland how to make it through. The Rev. Sharon Risher is one of them.
Risher’s mother and cousin were killed when a self-proclaimed white supremacist named Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015, and shot nine people dead after a Bible study. For the past two years, Risher has tried to deal with her own pain by working to get gun laws reformed.
“As I continue to go across this country speaking about gun violence, I continue to have hope people’s hearts will change and see the need for common sense gun law reform,” Risher told me the day after the Sutherland shootings. “I know what those Texas families are going through and know the intense pain and grief they will endure.”
It is a pain that doesn’t immediately disappear, Risher has told me more than once. It remains as a dull ache, even in moments when the violence that took your loved one seems a distant memory.
It is a pain that is difficult to accept, especially in the hours and days following the violence. Risher was in Dallas when she learned that her mother had died in the church in Charleston.
“My brain seemed to explode because my brain was overloaded with trying to comprehend and ingest the news that I had just heard,” Risher said.
“My brain went from total denial to trying to understand what would make a person do this,” she said. “When I got into Charleston, there was this great cloud following me, and I just couldn’t seem to get my mind wrapped around what had happened. It’s hard to explain, but you just get into this fugue state of being.”
In the wake of the kind of violence that has visited churches in Charleston, S.C., and Sutherland, Texas, it’s difficult to imagine anything other than that kind of hurt and confusion.
As people of faith, we often make the mistake of overcompensating for that — pretending we don’t feel the same pain as others in similar situations. But the reality is we do.
When we are confronted by the kind of hate that would make a man walk into a church and start shooting, confusion lingers just beneath our faith. Anger tries to smother our beliefs. Doubts rise to challenge our convictions.
But my faith has shown me over and over again that triumph rises from moments of deep hurt and confusion.
That’s what happened when hate walked up to the doorstep of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. A Klansman named Robert Chambliss, in retaliation for the church’s involvement in the civil rights movement, set off a bomb, killing 14-year-olds Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, and 11-year-old Cynthia Wesley.
In the wake of the bombing, hardcore white supremacists doubled down on the culture of hate, while other Americans — both black and white — came to realize the need for change. Two months later, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, the national outpouring of grief, compounded by the girls’ violent deaths, helped to galvanize support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Perhaps now, when yet another man driven by hate has devastated a community of faith, America will once again accept the need for change.
Perhaps now, when our country is locked in another period of racial chaos, we will again cross racial boundaries.
Perhaps now, when so many lives have been needlessly lost, triumph will once again rise out of hurt and confusion.
Perhaps now, when the dust settles from this latest attack on the people of God, we can finally do something about guns.
Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him weekdays from 10 am to Noon on Praise 107.9 FM.