“Heal the surrounding land where we now gather – Hoffmeyer Road, Vintage Place, the street and the home of the Hopkins family. Cleanse it from the spirit of violence, Lord, and account it as washed by your blood.”
Pisgah United Methodist Church has been tucked just inside northwestern Florence County for more than 100 years. It’s that beautiful, brilliant white church with the two towers capped by steep, bright red roofs, sitting back off the corner of Ebenezer and Hoffmeyer roads. You can’t miss it driving along nearby Interstate 95.
On this first Sunday in October – just your typical blue-sky, summer-sun-beating-down, 88-degree autumn day in South Carolina – the Rev. Josh McClendon has taken a knee on the concrete sidewalk at the foot of the steps leading up into the sanctuary.
Some 40 people, mostly Pisgah members but a few others from the community, follow their pastor’s lead, kneeling down and placing a hand on the concrete, grass, pine straw or dirt ground beneath wherever they happen to be standing.
“It’s a priceless thing in God’s sight for his people to touch and to be present, as we live in the real world, not just the spiritual world,” Rev. McClendon said, leading into prayer.
“Holy One, we pray in your name for the land, not that we can bestow any magical blessing upon it by the touching of our hands, but by being near to it, close to it, drawn to it as you have taught us to be, we can be your vessels on earth, and your spirit can indeed bless the earth and this land.
“For those folks so near to us in these homes not far at all from the sound of our voices, we pray, Lord Jesus, for your mighty presence.”
“Those folks” referred to the people who live just a short walk through the woods from Pisgah UMC, in the Vintage Place neighborhood – where police say one of their neighbors shot and killed one law enforcement officer and wounded six others on Wednesday.
That neighbor, Fred Hopkins, 74, is charged with murder in connection with the death of Florence Police Sgt. Terrence Carraway and six counts of attempted murder.
Sunday’s vigil – “A Blessing Of The Land And All That Is In It” – was just one way that the people of Pisgah UMC have offered their church as a place of healing and renewal for their community. The service originally had been scheduled as the church’s annual “Blessing of the Animals,” but Rev. McClendon saw an opportunity to broaden its reach.
A few animals were blessed, bringing some levity to the otherwise solemn gathering.
“It is heartening to me to take part in a service such as this,” said Jerry Rivers, chairperson of the church’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee. “I am a firm believer that there is power in prayer. A lot of us wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the prayers of others.”
Rivers, a retired law enforcement officer and now a magistrate court judge, counts himself among those numbers.
“We want to give back to our community,” he said, “and this is one small way that we could be in prayer for everyone in Florence County.
“As Christians, we are forgiven, and we are called to forgive. Sometimes it’s difficult. It’s very hard to feel that right now. We have to rely on God’s grace and sanctifying power.”
Within an hour of learning about the shootings, Rev. McClendon – who has been Pisgah’s pastor for barely three months – and Rivers were on the phone, discussing what the church should do, given its proximity to the scene. The first thing to do, they decided, was to open the sanctuary as a safe, quiet space for anyone who needed respite.
A few people took them up on their offer, but soon Rev. McClendon and church members found themselves walking into the large field adjoining the church property. Since other police agencies had taken over the actual crime scene, that field had become a place where Florence and Florence County officers gathered, unable to tear themselves away from where their colleagues had been felled.
Pisgah members prayed with the officers, offered them comfort, invited them to the sanctuary if they needed a break.
“We felt like we were able to be a calm in the storm,” Rivers said. “Some of the deputies were very distraught. We met with some of them and shared a prayer with them.”
“Doesn’t define the neighborhood”
Pisgah members Bobby and Karen Goin have lived in the Vintage Place neighborhood, about a block from the shooting scene, for 20 years. Karen Goin and their granddaughter were locked down at home during the incident, while Bobby Goin was outside the neighborhood, on the other side of police blockades.
Karen Goin, a teacher at nearby Lucy T. Davis Elementary, taught several of the foster and adopted children who had lived in the Hopkins home over several years. She and other neighbors feared the family was headed for trouble.
“But we never thought to this magnitude,” she said. “We thought they might be hard on themselves, not take it out on the neighborhood or someone else like the police.”
The Goins describe Vintage Place as a warm community where kids play in front yards and ride their bikes in the streets, where neighbors look out for each other. When the subdivision flooded in the wake of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and the power went out, residents with portable generators walked up and down the block, offering to let others run their refrigerators for a spell to keep their food from spoiling.
Just this past week, Karen Goin said, her neighbors have been taking home-cooked meals and water to police officers who were still investigating and protecting the shooting scene – “checking on them and making sure that they are OK.”
Bobby Goin is the church’s lay leader. He also has volunteered for more than 15 years with the Pee Dee Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the reduction of family violence, child abuse and sexual assault. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
“My desire is that this doesn’t define the neighborhood,” he said, “that we define it by our prior actions and our actions moving forward. We’re still that warm, loving neighborhood, coming together to help. When something like this happens, you don’t want to lose that.”
So, what now?
Rev. McClendon and the Pisgah congregation do not see Sunday’s service as the culmination of their outreach to their community. They know that more work lies ahead, but exactly what, when and where remains to be determined.
“There’s a lot of discernment to be done about what actually needs doing after a trauma,” Rev. McClendon said. “Sometimes we throw our resources and time and effort after things we don’t need to, and we’re all duplicating efforts.
“We need to ask, ‘What’s pertinent for us to do?’ ‘What gaps can we fill?’ We just don’t know yet. It may be that we need to not do anything. With this happening so close to us, we have to walk that line and ask, ‘Are we actually helping, or are we hindering?'”
One possible avenue the church is contemplating is visiting the neighborhood, walking the streets, greeting and praying with the Vintage Place residents. But not right away, maybe in a month or so. And not the whole congregation, just a handful of members.
“We know the people in that neighborhood feel like they’re stigmatized now, they’re still traumatized,” Rev. McClendon said. “Can we show up in person to be a part of how God can redeem their memory and their default thoughts about this physical place, that house?
“We want to try to balance being helpful versus doing what we want to do to help. We want to wait long enough so we don’t amplify the trauma and anxiety with all these strangers showing up. We know that, weeks and weeks later, they’re still going to be processing all of this.”
There’s just something about physical presence, he said, physical contact. In the Exodus account of God’s calling out to Moses from the bush on Mount Horeb, God tells Moses to take off his sandals, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
“Yes, we can pray for them from right here and it still counts,” Rev. McClendon said. “But there’s a sense of the physical, of the area around you having significance. How God’s presence seems to pervade what’s around it. God’s holiness has this almost substantial nature, almost like it rubs off on things around it.
“To me, it comes back to the sense that God is incarnational, not just pure spirit. We don’t experience just a vague spirituality as Christians, especially as Methodists. We have a strong sense that the physical and the spiritual are interwoven.
“There seems to be something special about where we actually put our feet, where we lay our heads, where we physically gather.”
“A good reminder”
Some members of the Hopkins family have visited Pisgah UMC over the years, Rev. McClendon and church members said. They are not church members but have been considered constituents, attending Christmas and Easter worship services and vacation bible school, developing relationships with previous pastors.
Some of the foster and adopted children from the home have been baptized at the church, Rev. McClendon said, but few members likely could say they really know the family.
“It’s a good reminder that we should do all we can to get to know each other, get to know our visitors,” he said. “Clearly, there was no way to anticipate something like this. We can’t say we should have seen that coming and we should have been more welcoming.
“But who knows what impact you have on random people who come through the church doors and how it could affect something later on. You just don’t know.”