By Jessica Connor
GOOSE CREEK—It was an ordinary Wednesday evening in January. Commuters clogged busy four-lane St. James Avenue, while parents ferried kids to and from basketball practice or nearby fast food restaurants. By all accounts, it was typical suburban life in a suburban Lowcountry enclave.
At St. James United Methodist Church, it was life as usual. Bible study had ended, but there were still children in the nursery at one end of the church, and choir practice at the other.
And then, just like that, around 8 p.m. on Jan. 18, their world changed.
Everybody get down on the floor! the man yelled from the back of the narthex, shotgun on his shoulder.
Choir Director Vance Ross, who was directing practice that evening, remembers being surprised at first, even thinking he didn t hear the man correctly. But all too quickly, he realized this was not a joke. In a bubble of surreal horror, Ross and the rest of the church choir began to get down from the risers and lay flat on the floor.
He asked for our wallet and cash, said Ross, who furtively pulled his bankcard and license out before tossing his wallet at the robber. I had my checkbook in my back pocket, and I remember he pulled it right out of my pocket.
Working quickly, Ross said, the robber took cash, wallets, purses and cell phones from the nine victims. One woman, a double amputee, couldn t get on the floor. The man hollered at her to get down, Ross said, but another choir member shouted that she had no legs and could not, so the man left her alone.
Keep your head down; don t mess with your phone, Ross remembers him muttering as he moved through the room.
Moments later, they heard the slam of the door, and quiet. He was gone. And that s when life for the members of St. James UMC changed again.
In the aftermath of the incident, after the tears, the shaking and the initial police investigation, the church made a decision. Instead of being immobilized by fear, anger and revenge, they were going to seek God in this experience.
While they are still healing from the trauma, while life will never be the same again, the church s pastor said somehow, the Holy Spirit is moving the church to gel in new ways, to unite as a team committed to overcoming tragedy and embracing forgiveness, harmonious fellowship and proactive safety.
God is God regardless, said senior pastor the Rev. Anthony Hodge. We understand evil exists, but even in the midst of evil, God still gives us sustaining grace and mercy to deal with unfortunate circumstances. We are leaning on each other, and first and foremost, we are leaning on God.
That very first Sunday, even with several of the choir members still traumatized from the experience, they gathered as a full choir and sang for the congregation, lifting up the Lord in spite of their fear.
They ve not stopped singing, Hodge said.
A wave of emotions
Hodge was out of town at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., at the time of the robbery, and he remembers getting the call shortly after the incident.
At first, Hodge said, I was ticked, to put it mildly.
After all, even though no one was hurt in the robbery, someone had violated his flock and the House of God.
Come on, this is the church. You re talking about what s supposed to be safe and secure, Hodge said. If there s anyplace you can go where there is security and serenity, it s a place of worship, and when that s violated, come on.
But then Hodge got into reactionary mode. How are the people doing? What can he do as the spiritual leader of the church to help them?
Meanwhile, the choir was dealing with a range of emotions. For one woman, this was the second armed robbery she had experienced. For others, they had a tough time understanding how something could have happened in their quiet, safe community.
Goose Creek is considered to be a low-crime area, a good place to raise a family. A few months ago, it had been voted one of the best places to live. The robbery quickly made national news.
It s a nice area, suburban, with a Lowe s on one side and a Catholic church on the other, a Wal-Mart just down the street, Ross said. It was really a shocker to have something like that happen.
As of press time, the suspect is still at-large.
But from the start, they tried to let God rule their emotions. And they were careful to make time as a church to discuss what had happened and how they were going to get through this.
With Charleston District Superintendent the Rev. Patti Parrish, St. James UMC held an incident debriefing the Saturday after the robbery. It was an opportunity to talk, to air concerns, to pray “ and to acknowledge that it could have been worse.
The church also quickly formed a Safety and Security Committee chaired by Chad Kelly, a former military police investigator who is a resident state fire marshal and works with North Charleston Fire Department. Kelly, whose mother was one of the victims, was one of the first church members on the scene, and he and the committee have made it their personal mission to ensure the church is prepared for future disaster “ natural or human.
The committee has been trying to upgrade safety and security at the church: repairing and installing lighting, escorting people in and out of church, installing electronic surveillance and training safety teams who can respond to medical and other emergencies.
We still have people who are scared, said Kelly, noting that his mother is one of them; memories of that night keep coming back for her. So we are trying to ease those fears without disrupting the traditions and the fellowship. It s a very hard balance to make between safety and security and people being relaxed and not worried about anything.
Kelly and his team are hoping to create an easy model that can be used in UMCs throughout the conference.
People need to take what happened to us as an example, Kelly said. It doesn t matter if you live in rural America or the big city, it can happen to you. People are desperate in these times with this economy, and they are willing to take drastic measures.
Ken Malchiodi, church lay leader, said the experience has made people much more alert about personal safety in their daily lives.
It makes us more cognizant of how precious life is, Malchiodi said. (Tragedy) can happen at any time, any place, and we re all vulnerable.
God s healing presence
But through it all, church members said they felt God s healing and peaceful presence.
Ross said the wave of peace he felt the night of the robbery was almost strange.
I really felt God s presence; I really had confidence we were going to be OK, that he wasn t going to hurt us, and there wouldn t be a problem, Ross recalled. It was funny because I questioned that myself “ how in the world can I feel that way when I have no idea what this character is up to? But something kept saying to me, ˜It s going to be OK, so I finally decided I would take it as that s what s going to happen.
That first Sunday, Hodge doing his all to help the church move within and
past the trauma, he remembers standing in the pulpit asking the Lord to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and he had a vision. The robber “ whom he had never seen “ entered his mind. And immediately, Hodge knew he had to forgive this man.
Obviously, he was not in the right state of mind, Hodge said. I almost feel sorry for him. ... It was an act of desperation, whether drug addiction or he didn t have enough to pay a bill.
Ross felt much the same way. I just knew I had to forgive him, Ross said, noting the rest of the church shares his attitude. The congregation has embraced a sentiment of unity and strength, of peace and harmony, of rising above.
We came to the realization as a church that we re not going to let this define who we are, Ross said. This is something that happened to us, not who we are. ¦ If anything defines us as God s children, it s that we have the opportunity to forgive that individual.
Malchiodi said the ready support the church received from leadership, particularly Hodge and Parrish “ is helping them heal more quickly. While it is a tragedy no one will soon forget, There is a very supportive attitude from the entire congregation not only toward the nine victims, but throughout the church.
Today, a spirit of resilience permeates St. James UMC. They are stronger, more bonded now.
The church is uniting in forgiveness, said choir member Mike Applequist.
Hodge agrees: In spite of everything, God is still there, and that is being revealed every day. We are not in it alone.