It was June of 1980 when my mother, Sharon Neal, was shot and killed during an incident of domestic violence at our home in Louisiana. Her assailant shot her five times: twice in the head and three times in the back. She was just 25 years old.
My three brothers and I were very young when our mother was taken from us. I was only 5 years old. Over the course of my life, members of my family told me I was not present when she was killed—perhaps in an attempt to spare me some of the trauma. But despite my young age, I distinctly remember being there. Gun violence is not something you ever forget.
The hardest part about growing up without my mother was the perpetual silence. My brothers and I were raised by my mother’s parents who loved and cared for us as their own. But we didn’t talk about my mother very much. It took years for my grandparents to process the death of their daughter in such a devastating way.
As a young child, when I would see other kids’ mothers, I would wonder, “Where is mine?” It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I was told more about what led to her death and began to understand the finality of what happened. Even today, there is a void in my life without my mother.
My brothers and I shared a fear our entire lives that we would die young, just like our mother. I believe this fear grew from having our safety compromised at such young ages. Thankfully, we had the love of our family and faith to get us through the toughest times.
Faith became such an important part of my life that I entered the ministry some 25 years ago. Many years later, I was pastor of the New Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson, Mississippi, when a man filled with hate entered our sister church in Charleston, South Carolina, and mercilessly shot and killed my friend and colleague—Rev. Clemente Pinckney—and eight parishioners. One other was injured but survived.
The shooting stirred a great awareness of gun violence in our church and drove many, including myself, to take a stand against this senseless and preventable crisis. I had not shared the story of my mother’s death by gun violence with very many people in the faith community prior to that time. But after what happened in Charleston, I knew the time had come.
I became an outspoken advocate in Mississippi and testified, often alone, against gun bills designed to make our weak gun laws even weaker.
Then, one day, our church met with Lucy McBath—the faith outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety and national spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. We began organizing in Jackson and, before I knew it, I was no longer alone.
Little did I know at the time that gun violence would darken my family’s door yet again. In October of 2016, my 18-year-old nephew, Kevin Neal, Jr., was killed when he was caught in the crossfire of a shootout in Virginia. He was my brother’s and his wife’s only child.
Today, as an Everytown Survivor Fellow, I regularly share about the toll gun violence has taken not only on my family, but on somany others in urban communities. Many people in our communities feel defeated and hopeless, but I want them to know that they don’t have to settle for grieving. I hope that by sharing my story with Everytown’s Survivor Network, others will feel empowered to share their stories and know they are not alone.
This piece is by Pastor Lorenzo Neal, a Mississippi member of the Everytown Survivor Network and Survivor Network Fellow. If you have been personally affected by gun violence and would like to share your story with Moms Demand Action, please email [email protected]