ATLANTA (UMNS) - Every Tuesday night, from 7:30 to 9, a room in Vinings United Methodist Church becomes the center of the universe for people desperately trying to survive the devastation of a murder in their family.
On a recent cold and rainy night, the Rev. Bruce Cook started the meeting the same way he always does, asking the dozen people there to join him in prayer.
"God, help us become better and not bitter," he says, before ending. A relaxation exercise follows the prayer. Then the stories start.
Mary Wojcik and her son, Russell Turner, are recent additions to what Cook calls "the club." Wojcik's legs and hands shake and her voice breaks as she talks about the recent murder of her husband.
Paul Kevin Wojcik had taken a temporary job delivering pizzas to earn some money while waiting to be called back to his full-time job as an elevator mechanic. He had only been with Pizza Hut for three weeks when he was sent to make a delivery to what turned out to be an abandoned apartment. He was robbed and strangled to death by two young men.
As she finishes her story, members of the support group cocoon Mary with words of comfort and understanding.
"I can see you are shaking; I used to do that all the time," Shelia Dates says. She became part of the support group after getting an invitation to attend the yearly memorial service Cook holds for survivors of murder victims.
"It was the guidance of the Lord that brought me to that first memorial service. It was the first step to healing for me," she says. "No one could really identify with me. I felt like a freak."
Dates' nightmare began early on the morning of Aug. 31, 1999, when a man and woman posing as FBI agents knocked on the door of her home. She worked for ACE America's Cash Express, and the two told her they were there to investigate several recent robberies at her store.
"I looked at their badges, and as far as I am concerned I made the biggest mistake of my life by opening the door," she says. Her 21-year-old daughter, Regina, was also at home that morning.
Dates was forced to go to the store with the woman to open the safe. After she left, her daughter Regina was strangled to death. Dates was also strangled and left for dead on the floor of the store after the woman assailant had the money.
"I take one day at a time and attend the support group on a regular basis. My life has changed forever, and I will never be the same. I can only hope and pray that one day I can talk about this and it won't hurt," she says.
The support group is a safe place to talk about the grief, anger and feelings of helplessness faced by the ones left behind.
Linda Allen, whose husband was killed in 1988, says the support group is about hope.
"It helps to not feel so alone, to see people who have survived," she says.
The Homicide Support Group is a ministry of the Crime Victims Advocacy Council, housed at Vinings United Methodist Church. Cook, director and chaplain, knows firsthand the pain the members of the support group are feeling. His stepbrother was murdered in 1977.
A retired prison chaplain with 23 years of service in the criminal justice system, Cook says that in one of his former roles as a parole-hearing examiner, "I heard 1,200 inmates tell me 1,200 reasons why they did not do 1,200 crimes."
The support group is based on a model of mutual self-help. Cook says the model has been carefully designed and crafted over 13 years.
"In here, it is like sitting in the warm hand of God. We practice deep listening. We won't just let someone say they don't feel good."
Cook says the biblical basis for crime victims' ministry is the Good Samaritan parable in Luke 10:25-37.
"Jesus selected a wounded robbery victim to be the center of the Good Samaritan parable. Not a homeless or poor person - a crime victim," he says. "The church is sadly more prone to help the equivalent of the parable's robber in a prison ministry, while neglecting to care for the one who was robbed."
The United States has 7,000 local jails, state and federal adult prisons, juvenile facilities and halfway houses, and almost all of them have paid or volunteer prison chaplains, Cook says. In contrast, there are only 53 faith-based ministries serving crime victims.
"Crime victim ministry is an under-utilized ministry in the church. Crime victims are left to fend for themselves, to un-wound themselves," he says.
Cook says the church's emphasis on prison ministry started with John Wesley. Churches also have difficulty getting access to crime victims, he adds. Often a pastor may only deal with a crime victim if the person is a member of the congregation. It also takes a lot of time - years - to help a person heal from a violent crime.
"We help the harmer in the United Methodist Church but not the harmed. That is also true in other churches, such as the Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, Islamic and Jewish."
The Crime Victims Advocacy Council has solved the accessibility problem by inviting all homicide survivors to an annual memorial service honoring their murdered love ones. The council gets the names of the deceased from the medical coroner's office. In the letter of invitation, the families are told about the support group.
Jessalyn Dorsey says getting that letter from the Rev. Bruce Cook made all the difference in her life.
"Seeing the word 'reverend' was a trigger for me. I picked up the phone and called him. His voice was so soothing. The first week I attended the support group was hard, but by the next week I couldn't wait to come back. Finally someone understood, and I didn't feel as crazy as I thought I was," she says.
Dorsey's only son, Terrence, was shot to death by two strangers Oct. 3, 1999.
"I am much better than I ever thought I would be. This support group has been my lifeline."
"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," Cook says.
The Crime Victims Advocacy Council offers training and technical assistance. In addition to the Homicide Support Group and the annual memorial service, the council also operates a 24-hour victim's hotline; offers pastoral care to families and individuals; offers a crime prevention program for schools, churches, and businesses; and advocates for crime victims through the legislative process.
For more information, contact the Crime Victims Advocacy Council, 3101 Paces Mill Road, Atlanta, GA 30339; telephone: (770) 333-9254; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site: www.gbgm-umc.org/cvac.
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*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.