One balmy summer evening two years ago, Sherialyn Byrdsong's husband, Ricky, a former basketball coach for Northwestern University, took their two youngest children, Ricky Jr., then 8, and Kelley, then 10, for a walk through their quiet suburban neighborhood outside Chicago, Illinois. As Ricky and the kids were walking a block from their house, Benjamin Smith, a white supremacist, cruised up from behind Ricky, leaned out his car window, and savagely shot a rapid round of gunfire. Bullets flew everywhere, burrowing into the siding of a nearby house and into Ricky's back, but miraculously missing the children. Then Benjamin Smith drove on, looking for his next random victims. (He eventually killed two people and wounded nine others—all either African- American, Jewish, or Asian-American—in two states before he took his own life.) Ricky and his children ran toward their house, but Ricky only made it across the street before falling in a neighbor's yard.
When Sherialyn returned home from an errand a short time later, her kids led her to Ricky, who was barely conscious on the corner one block from their house. She rushed to get him medical attention, but several hours later, after emergency surgery, Ricky died—simply because he was black, and had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sherialyn Byrdsong was left a widow and single mother of three young children. Ironically, his death came one week after Ricky had signed a book contract on a topic about which he was passionate: adapting what he'd learned on the basketball court as a coach, and applying it to building stronger families. Now Sherialyn was left to coach their children alone, three months shy of their 20th wedding anniversary.
Sherialyn could have become embittered toward whites or even toward God. Yet she chose to cling fervently to her faith in Christ and to pour her anger into something good. At Ricky's funeral, she wrote a message for the program that summed up her newfound role as a "voice in the wilderness": "It's time to wake up, America. It's time to turn back to God, to read and obey his Word, to put prayer and the Bible back into our schools and daily family living. This is not a gun problem, it's a heart problem, and only God and reading his Word can change our hearts. There can be no greater memorial and tribute to [Ricky's] life than to dedicate ourselves to the same pureness of heart and clean conscience in the sight of our God." Within days, she began work on Ricky's book, Coaching Your Kids in the Game of Life (Bethany House), along with coauthors Dave and Neta Jackson, and began forming The Ricky Byrdsong Foundation, whose mission is to eradicate the fear and ignorance that lead to hate. Some of its work includes running basketball camps and hosting an anti-hate program that brings teens of different races—including supremacists—together in a year-long work/play/discussion group. Sherialyn represents the foundation as she travels throughout the country speaking on the need for racial reconciliation and a return to godly values. She's taken a front seat in the movement for hate crimes legislation, and has spoken at the White House and for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, as well as at schools, church groups, and civic organizations.
Today, Sherialyn, 44, along with Sabrina, 14, Kelley, 12, and Ricky Jr., 10, remain in their once-again peaceful neighborhood—only now with a security system guarding their house. Their home is filled with gentle reminders of Ricky—from a retired basketball jersey to photos of Ricky with his family, and numerous awards and trophies. There's a striking photo of Sherialyn speaking at the White House last year while President Clinton applauded her speech against hate crimes.
In this exclusive TCW interview, Sherialyn not only shares the pain of her loss, but also how her faith is helping her pick up the pieces and use this tragedy to bring an end to hate.
Your life changed dramatically on July 2, 1999.
Yes. Early that evening, around seven o'clock, Ricky asked if I wanted to take a walk with him. I said yes, but first I'd promised my teenage sister, Jocelyn, who was learning how to drive, that I'd give her a driving lesson. She was spending the summer with us. So Jocelyn and I took the car and left for the church parking lot down the street.
How long were you gone?
Not long—maybe 20 minutes. But when we returned and were pulling into our driveway, I saw my eldest daughter, Sabrina, running down the street toward our house. She was crying, "Daddy's been shot!"
I couldn't believe my ears. I ran toward our house, but Sabrina said, "No, he's outside." So we ran up the street to where Ricky was lying. He was in horrible pain, writhing and moaning. A policewoman was already there, and told me, "He's been shot in the back, but there's not much blood. He'll be okay." I believed her.
I got on the ground with him and tried to reassure him by saying, "Calm down, Ricky. Calm down. You're going to be fine."
It must have been horrible to see him like that.
It was! But the ambulance arrived quickly and took him to the hospital.
Did you know this act was racially motivated?
No. Right before the ambulance came, the police asked me, "Do you know anybody who'd try to hurt your husband?" I couldn't think of anybody. Everybody loved Ricky; he was such a likeable guy.
What happened once you arrived at the hospital?
Shortly after I got there, my pastor and some friends came. While I was concerned about Ricky, I wasn't overly worried. I kept thinking, He'll be okay. He'll be in recovery for a while, then he'll be good as new. But an hour after we'd been waiting, a doctor told us Ricky had lost a lot of blood.
The next report came an hour later. This time the doctor said the situation was grave. That was the first time I became afraid. I started to cry, then started to pray intensely for Ricky. Everyone was praying for him.
When did you get the next report?
A little after midnight, the physicians came to the waiting room. They told me they'd done all they could, but his internal organs had suffered a lot of damage from blood loss. They said they did their best to patch him up.
Then they allowed our friends and pastor and me to go into the critical care room where Ricky was. He looked so swollen, like a giant. I stood over him and grabbed his hand. The group prayed for him, then I asked everybody in the room to leave. I whispered in Ricky's ear that I loved him. Several weeks before, I'd memorized Ezekiel 37:9, which says, "This is what the Sovereign Lord says: 'Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.'" I'd memorized that entire chapter, and I started to speak those words to Ricky: "Live! Live!"
Eventually a nurse came into the room. She stood there a moment, then said, "He's dead, you know." I looked at her in disbelief. She said, "You realize he's dead, don't you?" "He's dead?" I asked. I was shocked. "Yes," she said. "We've just been waiting for you." I said, "He's dead? Really? Dead?" She answered, "Yes. Ricky's dead."
That's how you found out?
After that, I started to sob, "NO! NO! NO! NO!"
The physicians and staff knew he was dead but didn't tell you?
They didn't tell me—I'm not exactly sure why. I think when the physicians came out to the waiting room to talk to me, they knew he was already dead. I knew his internal injuries were serious, but I really thought he was still alive.
Were your kids at the hospital with you?
No, some of the church members were taking care of the kids at our house. So I had to go home and tell them their dad was dead.
How did they respond to the news?
They just. … (pauses, sighs heavily) they just. … started crying.
How many times had Ricky been shot?
They don't really know how many bullets struck him. Kelley and Ricky Jr. told me all they heard was brbrbrbrbrbrbrb—a spray of bullets.
It's amazing they didn't get hit.
God really protected them. My daughter Sabrina told me something interesting months later. I asked her why she didn't go for a walk with her dad and her siblings that night. She said, "I had a feeling something bad was going to happen, so I didn't go."
If she'd been out there, she could have been killed, too. I believe the Holy Spirit spared her life.
What a horrific image for your children to handle. How have you helped them cope?
Ricky Jr. experienced nightmares for a while, and when we went out in public, he'd look over his shoulder a lot. Now, whenever he hears a story about something tragic, he asks lots of questions. For example, I was speaking recently at an event and many victims of hate crimes were there. I came home with a t-shirt from a family member who'd imprinted his brother's picture on it. My son started asking: Who was the guy who was killed? Did he get shot? Whose house was he killed in front of? Did they call 911? He wants to know every detail. That shows how deeply impacted he was by what happened to his father. I patiently walk him through all his questions. He's still trying to resolve everything in his mind and spirit.
You know how people say kids bounce back? That's my daughter Kelley. It seems as though she's bounced back too well—I almost question if that's okay. And I wonder how this will impact her later in life. But she's been doing fine.
My eldest daughter, Sabrina, feels things deeply. Other people's tragedies really cause her to cry because she can feel their pain. She's very sensitive.
I made sure my kids went through intensive counseling. And the counselor felt their faith and what they've seen modeled in other family and church members were having a powerful impact on them, too. I always try to remember that good will overcome evil.
It's really about allowing them the freedom to talk about it. I encourage them to discuss anything that's related to what happened to their father.
Has talking about it been beneficial to you?
This isn't therapeutic for me. But I share my story because I want to put an end to fear and ignorance.
When did you realize Ricky's death was racially motivated?
Ricky was shot on Friday, and by Sunday we knew.
I learned people who track hate groups had Benjamin Smith on their radar screen because he'd been passing out hate literature on college campuses. So once something like this happens, everybody starts collaborating with each other. Of course, the media had been following all of Benjamin's shootings. And the police and FBI were at our house investigating.
How did you explain that to your kids?
I don't remember having a special "sit down" to explain that to them during the heat of that week, because, really, when this first happens, it doesn't matter how it happens. The fact is, you're just dealing with the reality that your husband and their father is gone.
But we talked about it later. I explained there's evil in this world, and the force behind that evil is Satan, and his spirit can incite people to kill. We talked about how some people have the wrong perspective about others who are of a different race or background. I explained that as Christians, that's not how we're supposed to live, and that most hate is rooted in fear and ignorance. But it's all really rooted in the spirit of evil.
What about explaining it in terms of your faith?
I focused on Ecclesiastes 3, which says, "There is a time for everything. … a time to be born and a time to die." I shared that we all have to die, and even though their father's death occurred at a young age, he'd lived a full life and had impacted many people. I tried to help them feel grateful they had a chance to know their father, that he was able to instill things in them they'll always remember.
Did you ever struggle with anger toward Benjamin Smith?
It's not so much that I was angry with Benjamin Smith as I felt anger against evil. That's because the Bible tells us in Ephesians 6:12 that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the. … powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." That's where the real struggle is. I'm choosing to focus on breaking down the fear and ignorance that allow hate to grow.
Were you surprised at how this tragedy played itself out?
No, I wasn't surprised Benjamin Smith killed himself. He was a person who didn't appreciate the value of a life, and therefore could take his own.
Did you feel robbed of justice when Benjamin Smith committed suicide?
No, I didn't. Our earthly years are temporal. This isn't really the end; I'll see Ricky again in heaven. I also know some day, every person will get his reward—good or bad. Benjamin Smith made his decision. But whether or not he took his own life, whether or not he'd been caught, whether or not he served a life sentence or got the death penalty, in the end it's all going to be right and just. It's God who determines that. He is the just judge.
Did you ever go through a time of depression after this happened?
Not really. I have days when I get down because I start to dwell on what a terrible thing that was to do to another human being. Then I have days when the work I'm doing to address hate crimes and violence and to educate people gets overwhelming. It's such a huge problem. I'll pray, "Jesus, just come back and let us be done with all this!"
But when I start to experience those feelings, God reminds me I'm not spending enough time in the Bible, or I've been working too hard and haven't taken a break. So I take those feelings as a signal to do that, and then I try to adjust.
How did you keep your faith strong through this whole ordeal?
I have a real relationship with God. He's in me; he's with me. And that's remained constant. My faith was there and real before Ricky died, when Ricky died, and since.
So you never questioned God about why he allowed this tragedy to happen?
Yes, I questioned him. I wrote a poem, actually. The first lines of the poem are, "Lord, I need answers. I need to know why. 'Can you love me and trust me?' was his reply."
How did you get to the place of forgiveness?
That wasn't even something I had to go through an emotional debate over. I guess I have enough confidence in what God's Word says that it's transformed my thinking.
You mean how God desires us to forgive?
Yes. He promises us, "Vengeance is mine. I will repay." And he says, "Love your enemy." The Bible is more than a bunch of words; it's powerful and alive. In terms of forgiving the person who killed Ricky—he's dead. And as far as the others who live hate-filled lives, I'm praying for their salvation. That's all that matters. I try to have a more eternal perspective.
What message do you give to Christian women regarding white—and black—supremacists?
Just make sure you're not raising one. As a mother, you need to be aware. What kind of music or magazines is your child listening to or reading? What's he doing on the computer? Really stay on top of what your kids are doing. My kids have limited access to the Internet, and whenever they're on the Web, I peek in and look at the screen. Kids are our responsibility, so it's up to us to know where they go, with whom they hang, what they watch or read.
Also we need to make sure we're not saying things that plant seeds of hatred. You may not even realize it! Suppose a parent says something such as, "It's not right for this school to admit a minority student with a lower grade point average rather than a white student." When you say those kinds of things, you may be putting thoughts in your children's minds such as, Hey, they've taken away something I could have or my race could have.
Let's talk about The Ricky Byrdsong Foundation. You're the founder and president. At what point did you decide to do this?
The idea came from my former pastor, Haman Cross, who was one of Ricky's best friends. He suggested a foundation could harness all the energy of the people who wanted to address the problem of racial hate. So I prayed about it, and felt God leading me to be involved.
This was how long after Ricky's death?
Within days. I selected a board, and we had our first informal meeting two months later. By the middle of October, we'd mapped out our goals.
And they are?
To arrest the growing epidemic of hate and violence among youth by building their character and instilling a sense of purpose. The reality is, no matter how much you educate or legislate, if you don't attend to matters of the heart and spirit, your problems will escalate.
What does the foundation do?
Our primary focus is on our youth program, "Project Y.E.S.!" which stands for Youth, Education, and Service. We bring together youth from diverse ethnic backgrounds for our Corporate Camp, Not Just Basketball Camp, and Super Saturday Enrichment Days. In these settings, they discuss their stereotypes, beliefs, and issues relating to people different from themselves. They learn how to understand and appreciate each other's differences. Through their involvement in long-term, meaningful relationships, fear and ignorance can be reduced.
We sponsor an annual Ricky Byrdsong Memorial 5k Race Against Hate. Last year, nearly 2,000 people participated. We also serve as advocates, and I get lots of speaking requests, as well as opportunities to speak in the political arena on behalf of hate crime legislation.
Then, of course, I promote Ricky's book, Coaching Your Kids in the Game of Life. Before Ricky died, he'd already completed 80 percent of the book, so I took his notes and worked with Dave and Neta Jackson to complete it.
That must take on a different meaning now that you're a single mom.
What have been some of the challenges you've encountered as a single parent?
Now I can't take one kid one place to a function while my husband takes another kid somewhere else. When you have three kids, something's always going on at the same time.
Also, before Ricky's death, I didn't have to be the heavy. I just had to say, "Wait till your daddy gets home." Now I have to play two roles: the nurturer and the disciplinarian. That's draining. Not to mention that everything it takes to run a household falls totally on me.
What would you tell other women who've had to make this transition?
There are no easy words to say. It's hard. I'm not going to pretend it's not. I've had to trust God when he says, "I am father to the fatherless," or that he'll be my provider, that he'll supply all my needs. I've had to trust God to keep his promises, and do the best I can.
How have you taught your children to make healthy choices?
I talk with them everyday about the things that happen in their lives. One thing I've learned is rules without relationship lead to rebellion. Our kids won't be able to embrace rules unless they have a relationship with us. Then they'll be open to hear us. As difficult as that is sometimes, my goal is to never be too busy for my kids. I want them to feel that no matter what I'm doing, I'll stop when they want to talk to me.
How would you like to be remembered?
For modeling a life that pleased God. I want to be an instrument for his glory, advancing his purposes for our nation and for the world. I hope to be someone who, as the apostle Paul said, ran my race, finished my course, fought the good fight. From the time I was born to the day I said "I do," God knew Ricky's death would be a part of my life. God orchestrated this platform I have. Therefore, I want to be remembered as being faithful to my course, which is raising my three children, The Ricky Byrdsong Foundation, and the area of racial reconciliation. I want to be true to the call God placed on my life, so that someday God will be able to say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
For more information about The Ricky Byrdsong Foundation, or to contact Sherialyn, check out her Web site at www.byrdsongfoundation.org.
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