- Associated Press - Sunday, August 16, 2015

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - An open Bible rested comfortably in the hands of Eva Smith, its pages worn and fixed on the words of First Peter.

“Tend the flock of God which is among you,” she read aloud.

It was those words that led the 78-year-old North Charleston woman to take on a position 15 years ago as head chaplain at the Charleston County jail. And it’s those words that continue to guide her - a source of strength that allows her to endure.

“If I must say something, it’s that God loves his people no matter what they do,” she said. “It’s up to the people to accept his word.”

It’s not her place to judge, she said. Instead, she chooses to forgive.

In her time, she’s encountered no crime so heinous for which she can’t find room in her heart to offer that gift. Even, she said, in recent months when she crossed paths with the man suspected of walking into Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in June and shooting nine black parishioners.

The killings, described by authorities as a racially motivated hate crime, placed Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, at the jail charged with nine counts of murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. He faces 33 additional counts on federal hate, weapon and other charges.

To Smith, though, Roof is merely a young man, like any other, in need of God’s love.

A mother of three and grandmother of eight, Smith, who is black, attempted to build a rapport with Roof by asking whether his parents had come to visit. Arms crossed, face scrunched, he replied no, she said. Well, what about a girlfriend, she asked.

“Then he looked up at me and he smiled,” she said. “You have to make him smile. … I really feel that he’s going to get the help he needs because of the people who are saying, ‘I forgive him. I forgive him.’ The law’s going to do what it has to do, but we aren’t a people of an eye for an eye.”

Housed near Roof at the jail is Michael Slager, the former North Charleston patrolman charged with murder in the April shooting death of Walter Scott. The shooting made headlines amid an ongoing public discussion on whether officers across the nation too quickly resort to deadly force during encounters with minorities. Slager is white, Scott black.

In Smith’s eyes, Slager is “a sweet young man” who talks often of the joys of fatherhood, however limited from behind the jail’s walls.

“He has a brand new baby. That’s his first baby, so you know how that is,” Smith chuckled. “I have passion for him that way.”

Roof, Slager and all the others booked over the years at the jail “are just my sons,” Smith said. “I don’t care what the issue is.”

The first step to helping them, she said, is finding the strength to look past the worst in us all.

“I have to forgive first. That’s the healing. … If you can forgive, then He will forgive you,” she explained, “Amen.”

It took “years and years” of growth to reach and maintain the position Smith holds leading the lost and misguided to salvation.

“And I still have years and years to go,” she said.

Her path stemmed from a childhood deeply rooted in her faith.

“Growing up in North Charleston, everybody went to church,” Smith said.

She developed a talent for singing early on. So much so, she said, that she was selected at age 11 to lead the senior choir at Bethel Reformed Episcopal Church, located then in the Union Heights neighborhood, rather than accompany the juniors.

As an Episcopalian, Smith said she never considered as a child that she would one day join the ministry.

“In the Episcopalian Church, women did not preach. Women did not do any more than teach Sunday school, help with the communion or sing in the choir, as far as I saw,” Smith said.

Her vision for herself began to change in early adulthood while stationed in the Philippines and, later, Louisiana with her husband, an airman she met while doing domestic work at Charleston Air Force Base.

Smith recalled being so overcome while singing in a choir that her hands began to rise, seemingly on their own. On another occasion, she awoke from slumber yelling, “I’m saved, I’m saved,” she said.

“I really sensed the Lord pulling on me through dreams and vision,” she said. “That’s how I decided I had a calling that he was trying to make me aware of.”

After studying theology and being ordained an elder and later associate pastor at churches in Louisiana, Smith moved back to South Carolina in the ‘90s to build her own church.

Soon afterward, she said, she felt God instructing her to “tend the flock of God which is among you.” She took the words to mean that she should volunteer as a chaplain at the Charleston County jail. She was selected as head chaplain four years later in 2000.

North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers at the time served as chief deputy of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and had a hand in her hiring.

“God has given her the heart for that ministry. You could tell that when she volunteered,” he said. “Her love for that ministry - it shows in her face, it shows in her being, it shows in her attitude, it shows in her heart, it shows in her mind. … She’s right where God needs her.”

The Rev. Rob Dewey, senior chaplain at Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, described Smith as having a “real sweet spirit about her,” saying he loved her “just like a sister.”

“She is so loved by both the inmates and also the employees at the Charleston County Detention Center. That is a hard balance to have and to carry out, and she has done an excellent job,” Dewey said.

The job comes with its challenges, Dewey said, as Smith must make sure to maintain the trust of both jailer and inmate.

“She has to be careful, as do her volunteers, not to carry information back and forth unless it is to help the person that she’s ministering to,” he said.

Despite her gentle persona, Smith can be tough when needed, he said.

“I’ve seen inmates try and get away with things or try to get special privileges and she’ll be very hard-nosed and hold them accountable,” Dewey said.

But in all of his years of knowing Smith, he’s never heard a complaint or negative word said about her, he said.

Asked how the inmates at the jail respond to her, Smith replied, “I think they really enjoy me.”

Smith ensures that all inmates at the jail have access to communion, baptisms, counsel, religious instruction and singing lessons. She also connects inmates of varying faiths to outside religious leaders when needed, she said.

From time to time, she encounters an inmate who believes that as a woman she should not be allowed to function in that role.

“We’re not going to hear from the devil today,” she recalled one man yelling out to her as she prepared speak. She responded to the man that he wouldn’t be hearing from her, but from Jesus, she said.

She lifted her Bible and held it firm in her hand.

“That’s why this is here,” Smith said.

Most of her conversations with the incarcerated begin with a simple question:

“Are you a believer?”

Most respond yes.

The exchange opens a door that can, with help, lead to growth in the most trying of times, she said.

“This is what I want to do. I see people hurting and I help them. … God told me to rise up and be not afraid,” Smith said. “I know that if I’m afraid, that’s not of God.”


Information from: The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com

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