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Chaplain won't let the church forget crime victims



The Crime Victims Advocacy Council support group opens a meeting with prayer. The council is working to train United Methodist chaplains to minister to victims of crime. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert and
Alice M. Smith*

April 16, 2007

The statistics are grim. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, five out of six people will be victims of attempted or completed violent crime at least once in their lives in the United States.

Many will go to their pastor in search of spiritual courage to face the rest of their lives. Until recently, pastors specially trained to work as crime victim chaplains have been few and far between in The United Methodist Church. But a 2-year-old initiative is helping to fill that void.

National Crime Victims' Rights Week is April 22-29, when many communities across the United States will hold memorial services to remember victims of crime and to promote victims' rights.

In Atlanta, a service is scheduled for April 22 at Northside United Methodist Church to remember the victims of more than 3,000 homicides in Atlanta over the past 16 years. The Rev. Bruce Cook of the North Georgia Conference is organizing the event.

Cook has worked with crime victims since 1989 and says the church often has neglected innocent people touched by violent crime.


"It is a tremendous inequity to minister to prisoners and their families and not to victims and their families," says the Rev. Bruce Cook.

"It is a tremendous inequity to minister to prisoners and their families and not to victims and their families," said Cook, a founder of the Crime Victims Advocacy Council. He now serves as chaplain and director of pastoral care for the organization, headquartered at Vinings United Methodist Church, also in Atlanta.

Training chaplains

In 2005, with the help of a $28,650 grant from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries' restorative justice program, Cook set out to locate and train chaplains from across the church to work specifically with victims of crime. His goal was 60 chaplains - to match the 60 United Methodist chaplains who work in prison ministry across the United States.

As of last November, 46 people had stepped forward and were provided a job description, DVD training tape and other materials. Some participated in a Web video conference. Three have been officially endorsed by the United Methodist Endorsing Agency of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and others are working toward such an endorsement.

According to Cook, such chaplains are needed when victims ask what he calls the "God question."

"After a violent or serious crime, there is a real potential for them to lose their faith completely," he said.

The Rev. David Cook (no relation to Bruce Cook) is among United Methodist pastors who answered the call.

"We need a lot more people doing this," said David, a chaplain in Newport News, Va. "Support groups for crime victims work because there is strength in numbers. For those of us of faith, the Holy Spirit often works in small groups."

The 'Lost Boys'

Both men offer support groups for families of homicide victims, and David is working with a large community of "Lost Boys" - men and women who escaped genocide in Sudan.

The "Lost Boys" are orphans from Sudan forced to leave their villages by war. As children - some as young as 3 - they walked hundreds of miles through the African wilderness to find safety. The United States is among many countries that have offered sanctuary to the refugees.

"We have over 60 people living close by that we are helping recover from the wounds of their past in Sudan," David said. Christ United Methodist Church of Newport News has provided David with office space, and many church members volunteer in the ministry to crime victims.

Something "powerful and scary" happens, he said, when people who have been through similar experiences share their stories. "They help each other."

When the Crime Victims Advocacy Council launched, little work was being done to advocate for victims, but "the victims' justice system in America has improved drastically in recent years," according to Bruce Cook.

"There are approximately 10,000 victim service providers located at the local, state and federal levels across the country. Every state has a bill of rights for crime victims. … Recently, federal legislation for crime victims was passed that promotes a system of rights for crime victims in federal courts."

Where is the church?

The most pressing need today, he said, is greater response from the faith-based community.

"I hear repeatedly from victims that the church cares initially about the crime, but rarely provides intermediate and long-term care and spiritual counseling for the victims. I go to court with crime victims and only see clergy representing the defendant as a character witness. In all my years of service to victims, I have never seen clergy at the trial for the victim's family."

"I hear repeatedly from victims that the church cares initially about the crime, but rarely provides intermediate and long-term care and spiritual counseling for the victims." -The Rev. Bruce CookCook identified the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10: 25-37 as the biblical basis for ministering to crime victims.

"The parable speaks volumes about Jesus' concern for the wounded crime victims left bleeding on the side of the road," Cook said. "He exhorted us all to take our victims to inns of healing and pay whatever it costs for them to heal."

"Any church that wants to apply the lessons of the Good Samaritan, helping wounded and victimized neighbors, can offer a crime victims support group in their church," he said.

For more information, call (770) 333-9254, e-mail askcvac@aol.com or visit www.gbgm-umc.org/cvac.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. Portions of this story were adapted from an article by Alice M. Smith, editor of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Related Articles:

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Grants will provide training for crime victim chaplains


Crime Victims Advocacy Council

National Center for Victims of Crime

National Crime Victims' Rights Week

Board of Global Ministries Restorative Justice

Board of Higher Education Endorsing Agency

Book of Resolutions

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