By Jessica Brodie
S.C. United Methodist Advocate
As victims, survivors and family members of the Emanuel 9 massacre gathered for the emotionally grueling trial in Charleston recently, a three-pronged team of chaplains, mental health counselors and victim advocates were there every step of the way, letting them know they were loved and they were most certainly not alone.
Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, South Carolina resident bishop for The United Methodist Church, authorized a $30,000 grant to help pay for the spiritual support team that ministered to the survivors attending the trial. The 15-person chaplaincy team – a project of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program – spent each day of the trial helping to pray and otherwise come alongside them. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Office of Victims of Crime in Washington also helped with funding.
“We all were just so shocked and saddened by the tragedy, and everyone wanted to do something,” said the Rev. Cathy Jamieson, Columbia District superintendent. “Even though we couldn’t all be there (at the trial), we were there by supporting this team and knowing they were providing prayers, hospitality, pastoral care and nurture as an extension of our ministry.”
On June 17, 2015, nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were murdered by a self-proclaimed white supremacist. The shooter, Dylann Roof, was convicted in December on 33 federal charges, including hate crimes, and sentenced to death on Jan. 10. Among those killed were the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was Emanuel’s pastor and a state senator. The murders gripped the nation. Former President Barack Obama, as well as Bishop Holston and other United Methodist clergy, attended the funeral.
As the tragedy unfolded, Jamieson said, “money came into the South Carolina Annual Conference, and at the time we didn’t necessarily have a purpose or direction for the money.”
But God provided a purpose, she said, when she was contacted by the Rev. J. Eric Skidmore, a longtime friend and chaplain for the State Law Enforcement Division. Skidmore, program manager for SCLEAP, asked whether the UMC would consider helping to pay for a spiritual support team for the roughly 95 victims, survivors and family members of the Emanuel 9 who would be attending the trial and would surely need counseling, prayer and other support. Bishop Holston authorized the grant.
SCLEAP came alongside other caregivers in what Skidmore called “a three-legged stool” organized by the woman he calls his hero, victims’ advocate Clarissa Whaley of the United States Attorney’s Office. Whaley’s effort, which Skidmore said had the blessing of acting United States Attorney Beth Drake, encompassed spiritual support, as well as mental health counseling and other victim advocacy.
Skidmore and the Rev. Steve Shugart, clinical chaplain with SCLEAP, headed up the spiritual support team component that included a rotating pool of 13 other clergy members from a variety of denominations.
“The federal folks provided a large space they called ‘the family room’ on the third floor of the courthouse, and it became our home in the midst of this tragedy,” said Shugart, a United Methodist minister.
The “family room” was a place for the 95 survivors to come during the trial for prayer, counseling and other support. They also could view the trial from the room rather than having to be there in person, which was often traumatizing, Shugart said. The team set up an altar and would offer prayer, Scripture readings and group and individual spiritual counseling, as well as other care.
“One of our roles was to escort people in and out of the courtroom, to places to eat or respite places for care, and it seems small, but like all aspects of this ministry, we were tethered to them, working with them, being with them as they ate and prayed,” Shugart said. “We mostly listen to folks and be present so they can give voice to some of their groanings, as Scripture would say.
“We went through a lot of the tough questions, like how do these terrible things happen in light of our belief in a loving God, what’s next for my life, how will God use me, even what to say to Dylann Roof at the end.”
They also had the opportunity to minister to the federal team, attorneys, police officers and others connected to the trial.
They said the money donated by the UMC and others helped provide a place of comfort that reflected true kindness and care.
“It was more than a trial,” Shugart said. “It was a chance to see God and God’s goodness and hope and pray for a part of his place, his kingdom.”
Skidmore said the experience not only offered assistance to the survivors but also a testament to the Christian hospitality of Charleston, which he called a true ecumenical effort.
“Every one of the boxed lunches they received each day had prayer cards written by Charleston clergy members,” Skidmore said. “It was an AME tragedy in an AME church, but there were so many others helping: United Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran.”
Their work did not end with the sentencing, Skidmore said. Other elements of the case remain, and a second community worship service is being planned for Charleston. The first worship service, held at the Anglican St. Michael’s Church, one block from the courthouse, was one of the most moving parts of the spiritual support offered, he said.
The team plans to continue to offer care for the 95, plus the support team themselves.