Response: June 2015 Issue

My Sister’s Keeper

United Methodist Women in South Carolina serve as the voice for the unheard during a legislative advocacy day.

My Sister’s Keeper
A woman prays with her United Methodist sisters at the South Carolina Legislative Action Day in Columbia, South Carolina, in March 2015.

It's a sunny, cloud-speckled spring morning in South Carolina, and on the campus of Epworth Children's Home in Columbia, women of all ages and races are making their way across the lawn.

They're headed to Legislative Advocacy Day, a South Carolina United Methodist Women's event that has gone on for so long even their oldest members can't precisely recall when it started, back when it used to be called Capitol Day and was held at a church and culminated on the steps of the statehouse.

Today, March 17, the hundreds of women have come to Epworth from every district in the state, as far away as the swamps of the Lowcountry or the foothill mountains of the Upstate, all there with one purpose in mind: to advocate to the powerful on behalf of those without power of their own.

It's a heady feeling, they say, and one that calls them back year after year, all in the name of God.

"That's what we're called to do — to advocate on behalf of those who cannot do so for themselves," said Rebecca Eleazer, member of Francis Burns United Methodist Church in Columbia, who has been coming to the annual event as long as she can remember and now pitches in as registrar. "This day is a vehicle to train women to go into the field."

Education and advocacy

Every year, the United Methodist Women embrace a different topic, like public education or immigration, and spend a day learning all they can about it, with the idea that they will go back to their own communities armed with information and motivated to advocate. This year, with the theme "Am I My Sister's Keeper?" they tackled domestic violence, with awareness centering on lobbying for passage of state legislation, Senate Bill 3 and House Bill 3433. If passed, those bills would change how the state looks at domestic violence and hold abusers accountable on a more stringent basis.

Throughout the daylong gathering, the women heard from the director of a major domestic violence organization, a representative of the assistant attorney general's office and other experts who educated attendees on statistics, current issues and what they can do to help.

"South Carolina is ranked number two in the nation for women killed by men," said Marie Sazehn, program director for the Violence Against Women Act Program in South Carolina. "The year before that, we were number one, and we have been number one at least three times in the past 10 years, and a big part of this legislation being pushed through is to try to do something about that."

Becky Callaham, director of Safe Harbor in Greenville, said the bills are not the end-all and be-all and that domestic violence is not a problem that can be fixed in one law and one year. But it's a big step, and United Methodist Women members can be a part of the solution.

"Domestic violence is not just that incident when some man gets drunk after he gets paid on a Friday night and beats up his woman. It's not happening to 'somebody else' — we are those people," Ms. Callaham said. "It's a pattern, and it happens, and it keeps on happening."

But if groups like United Methodist Women can band together and take action, pick up the phone or take to their computers and contact their legislators, they can quite literally change the course of domestic violence in this state.

"I've had legislators tell me, 'Oh, I've gotten a bunch of people calling me about that issue,' and so we dug in and found out how many they consider to be a bunch: it's five," Ms. Callaham said, encouraging the women to make that call on behalf of their sisters.

Awareness and action

Rachel Shupe, who coordinated this year's Legislative Advocacy Day, plans to do just that. Years ago, Ms. Shupe had an employee who was being abused, and even though she talked to the woman and offered to help after she saw the bruises all over the woman's arms, Ms. Shupe has always regretted not doing more.

"She told me, 'Please don't do anything,' so I didn't, and I always felt bad about it," she said. Even though the woman's husband has since died and she is now free from the abuse, Ms. Shupe's lack of action haunts her. Now, she has the chance to make up for it, and she is advocating in the woman's honor.

"It's important to United Methodist Women members to do things like this, and hopefully it'll help somebody when you're bringing things out in the open, where everyone can hear," she said.

Ella Chisholm, member of Zion United Methodist Church in Huger, near Charleston, said she and a group of women from her church make the two-hour drive to Columbia each year for Legislative Advocacy Day exactly for that reason: to be more educated about issues that used to be discussed just in whispers.

"It helps me to be more educated and more aware, and it does motivate me," Ms. Chisholm said. "Sometimes you think about it, but you don't proceed; sometimes you go and help in an area, but you don't actually talk about it, and this day motivates me to go and maybe talk to my legislators about it."

This is her sixth time attending the advocacy day.

"I go because I'm Spirit-called, and I go to help," she said. "I'm a helper, and any way I can help, I do."

Frankie Bowman, member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Blythewood, has also come to advocacy day for the past several years. She attends because it helps her stay abreast of issues and learn how to do something about them.

"Like with the health crisis in this state — our legislators all have health insurance, and they're just not aware, don't realize how tough it is for those who don't have it. Same thing with domestic violence: it's an opportunity for us to make them aware," Ms. Bowman said. "I think we have to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves."

Her friend Jayne Varnes, who is a first-time attendee, feels much the same way.

Coming to Legislative Advocacy Day is "another way for me to learn what I need to do," Ms. Varnes said. "I need to be a voice for the unheard."

And that's the point, said Marlene Spencer, president of the South Carolina United Methodist Women. Domestic violence, like the other issues addressed at the annual event, affects so many women and children, and if United Methodist Women members stand together and truly be their sister's keepers, they can have the chance to change the culture for good, and for God.

"Domestic violence affects people of all socioeconomic, religious and educational backgrounds, every culture, every group," Ms. Spencer said. "This is reality, people, and if we want to stop domestic violence, we need to work together.

"It's our responsibility to help people in need."

The day after the event, the women were already planning next year's Legislative Advocacy Day, set for February 2016 in Columbia — even as they picked up the phones to dial their legislators about tougher domestic violence laws.

For as the Rev. Brenda Kneece of the South Carolina Christian Action Council said before the packed gym at Epworth, "You are your sister's keeper, and you've gotta do the work."


Jessica Brodie is the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate in Columbia, South Carolina.

Posted or updated: 6/1/2015 11:00:00 PM
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