When I went to work on June 17, 2015, I was an unknown trauma chaplain at a big county hospital in Dallas. I loved my work, even though it was emotionally and spiritually tough. I’d had years of training and felt pretty competent in my role. Then, June 17, 2015, happened. A young white supremacist walked into my mother’s church, Emanuel AME Church, and participated in an hour-long Bible study. While in a prayer circle, holding hands, and eyes closed, this young man pulled out his gun and commenced slaughtering them. These churchgoers were slaughtered because of a twisted ideology of hate. My mother, Mrs. Ethel Lance, two cousins, and a childhood friend were killed, along with five others.
I had worked with so many patients and families who had suffered trauma and crisis, especially families who had lost someone to senseless gun violence, but it appeared my training didn’t come into play for myself. I walked around my apartment, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, in agony. Then my chaplain hat popped up. I told myself, “Sharon, you know hours of waiting to hear news about someone usually means the patient is dead.” The reality of it all was shattering.
I believe that was about the only time that I thought about my situation, my loss, my grief, like a chaplain. I had no one to pray with me or to ask if I needed or wanted anything. I had no one to listen to my fears and concerns. I was alone. I should have reached out to someone, asked them to come over to be with me on that terrible night. But I didn’t. As a chaplain, I would have suggested that fairly soon in the conversation. I often assisted in calling and gathering family members.
Looking back, I didn’t follow anything I would have suggested to others. For all my theological and chaplain training, I felt lost and alone. I didn’t seek counseling, I isolated myself, and I jumped right into the movement of gun violence prevention. The reality of it all was I didn’t use my training as an ordained clergyperson for myself in a crisis. But that’s the human part of being in a profession where your ministry is a ministry of presence: you don’t see yourself as needing that kind of care. You tell yourself, “I got this,” when in actuality, you’re a mess.
My faith was shaken to its very core. I was in such despair. I wasn’t Rev. Risher or Chaplain Risher. I was a grief-stricken daughter, mother, sister, aunt, and friend. Yet I didn’t think about myself, but kept on going, trying to be the rock I felt my family members needed. Instead of my family drawing closer, we were tattered pieces from the fabric my mother had woven. All I could really offer was a broken person.
As professional clergy, we must allow ourselves to be ministered to. I don’t care how long you have been in ministry; we are regular people with challenges that can shake us to the core. We can’t heal ourselves. We have to abide by the same advice and suggestions we give. We can’t ignore that we need help and we have to practice self-care. As I wrote in my book, For Such a Time as This: Hope and Forgiveness after the Charleston Massacre, I have learned some lessons:
You can’t heal in isolation . Never underestimate the importance of hearing the advice of others and the wisdom of those who have heard similar stories or share the same experiences. As humans we are made to be in relationships with others. I started to call people who I knew loved me and they were there to listen.
Trust your gut instinct and cling to your faith . Even in the mix of a traumatized faith, you know in the depths of your soul that God, a Higher Power, is there and you can trust you are loved. You will find yourself navigating yourself back to that space that has always brought you peace and comfort. Trusting blindly.
You have to take care of yourself . There is no way around it. We have to be physically, emotionally, and mentally fit — we must nurture ourselves. If we don’t pay attention and find a balance, we can’t and won’t be the servant leaders we are called to be, if we are sick and broken.
As professional clergy, we are not immune to life’s challenges and tragedies. I pray no one ever has to go through what I have been through. As regular people, no matter the titles, we can face whatever life throws at us. We were made that way. Through the grace of God and a faith that surpasses human understanding, we can face anything and come out on the other side a better pastor, a better chaplain, a better person.