Sisterhood of Survivors

Killingsworth guides women in crisis to Christian transformation and love.

Sisterhood of Survivors
Killingsworth residents Emily Adams, left, and Sheneka Boyless are roommates and friends. Here they sit in the living room at Killingsworth.

Sheneka Boyles started drinking when she was 19 as a way to let loose. But eight years, three kids and a divorce later, alcohol had become a way of life—the only thing that could get her through the day.

Then the blackouts started, and the memory problems. She didn’t recognize her own eyes in the mirror. When she woke up in a hospital after an alcohol-induced car accident and didn’t remember how she got there, she knew she’d hit bottom. Today, Boyles has found redemption, recovery and a sisterhood among fellow survivors in a unique community residence called Killingsworth.

At Killingsworth, a 115-year-old, eight-bedroom brick home in the heart of downtown Columbia, South Carolina, Boyles lives with 16 other women emerging from varying forms of crisis. Some are recovering addicts. Others have escaped an abusive marriage. Still others are battling mental health or gambling problems.

“I call what brought me here GOD—the Gift of Desperation,” said Boyles, who recently celebrated one year of sobriety. “I didn’t always see it as a gift, but it is. A gift from God.”

Stepping out

Killingsworth, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution, started in the 1940s as the vision of one woman seeking to meet a need in the community. Back then, it was unheard of for proper Southern women to leave home before getting married. But with World War II, things were beginning to change. Corrie Killingsworth, who answered phones at Washington Street Methodist Church, kept getting calls from parents asking whether anyone might let their daughters board. The young women were hoping to move to Columbia to attend business or nursing school, making their own way in the world.

Inspired, she rallied women from Methodist churches across the area, and together they raised enough funds to purchase and renovate a house for these women, which opened in 1947. Within a decade, they had outgrown the house and decided to buy a larger home a few doors down, but it needed a great deal of work.

United Methodist Women came to the rescue, contributing additional funding to purchase and renovate it. Today, the title sits in the national office , with United Methodist Women owning and insuring the building and Killingsworth’s staff and board handling operations.

In those days, it was what the Rev. Diane Moseley, Killingsworth executive director for the past 40 years, described as “a Christian girls’ boarding house.” But it was also so much more. Even in those early days, Killingsworth was a place for women in transition—women stepping out alone, forging new paths, making their own money.

“Corrie’s my hero,” Moseley said. “These women were doing something different; they were the forerunners. Corrie saw that and had a vision. When one Methodist woman has an idea and does something about it, get out of her way!”

Second chapter

But by 1972, there were only two women living in the house.

“The culture had changed,” Moseley said.

And so Killingsworth’s second chapter began.

The church had recently become The United Methodist Church, and the denomination was beginning to talk more in-depth about women’s issues, particularly women in crisis. And in South Carolina, there were plenty of needs.

The board adjusted to meet those needs. Their mission—to be in ministry to South Carolina women going through significant change—didn’t shift. But the stories behind that change were different.

“Instead of younger women moving out of their parents’ house, these women were moving from a time of brokenness and difficulty,” Moseley said. “They were women with issues like alcoholism, drug addiction, prison release, domestic violence—and it was all about helping them develop coping skills.”

Since their reboot in 1972, Killingsworth has helped hundreds of women get back on their feet. Some stay awhile, some a short time—whatever it takes.

“There’s no judgment; our lives become integrated,” said Becky Roberts, administrative assistant at Killingsworth and a former resident. “This is a chance for a change, and sometimes Killingsworth is the last stop on the block.”

Roberts said many of these women have heard, “Oh, she won’t change,” so often that they have begun to believe it. But at Killingsworth, they try to teach women to believe in redemption, to believe they can become a new creation in Christ.

“Transformation is key,” Roberts said. “It’s a very positive, progressive place in the way we work with one another, the way we treat one another.”

Indeed, Moseley said, they operate on kairos, God’s time.

“We watch: How is she doing? Is she talking like a person who can handle it? Is she ready for her kids?” Moseley said. “It’s about helping women one by one. That’s how they live, one day at a time, so that’s how we meet them: One at a time, one day at a time.”

All going through this together

Emily Adams, a former methamphetamine addict, is one of those women. This is her second time at Killingsworth. She left in 2015 when her father had a stroke, and she went home to care for him. She had been clean for two years, but her father’s death sent her into a relapse.

After rehab, she said, “I knew where I had to come—I had a bed waiting for me at Killingsworth.”

This time, she’s taking her recovery far more seriously. At age 34 and with three kids—ages 14, 9 and 7—she knows she’s battling a hereditary disease, and she’s glad her children can see her fighting to break the chain.

“I’d lost myself. After my relapse, I was bankrupt spiritually and emotionally, just a big old hole,” Adams said. “I feel safe here. I get to save some money. I can talk to someone. It gives you an opportunity to get to know yourself, to grow.”

It also gives Adams the chance to surround herself with what she calls “the winners”— women like her who are choosing to embrace healthy, sober living. Her roommate, Boyles, has become like a sister. For the first time in their lives, they’re learning to turn to fellow sisters in Christ to get through their problems instead of drugs or alcohol.

“Coming to Killingsworth was the best decision I’ve made in my life,” Boyles said, clasping Adams’ hand as they shared their stories. “I found hope here, a new way of life here. I’m surrounded by people who don’t judge me. We’re all facing the same dilemma; we have different stories, but we’re going through this together.”

A network of love

What also helps, they said, is knowing they have a network of women across the nation behind them. From donating items and money to prayer and cooking meals, United Methodist Women members support Killingsworth in significant ways.

“United Methodist Women are the heart of Killingsworth,” said Flo Johnson, Killingsworth president. “These women who live here have so much to overcome, and to have a place like this where they can establish new patterns allows them to move on in life, contribute to society. Killingsworth, with help from United Methodist Women, provides this for them.”

Cindy Graham, of the Frances Major Circle at Lexington United Methodist Church, Lexington, said her United Methodist Women has sponsored Killingsworth for 20 years. They collect quarters to help with laundry, assist with fundraisers and cook dinner for them.

“We have a love for these women,” Graham said. “It’s a mission in action for us.”

Sandra Love, president of the Columbia District United Methodist Women and on the Killingsworth board, said she tries to help the residents as though they were members of her own family; after all, in Christ, they are.

“They all need love, and the need is so great,” Love said. “If there was not a Killingsworth, I don’t know where they’d be. How many of us would give up a room in our own house to help one of them?”

Giving back

Moseley will retire next year after four decades at the helm—just long enough to see Killingsworth reach its 70th anniversary. Over the years she’s seen countless success stories: the woman in her 40s who’d finally been at her job long enough to earn a week’s vacation. The mom able to get her child out of foster care and buy her a new backpack and shoes. Those who managed to save up a down payment for an apartment, get a promotion, send out Christmas cards.

“We help families come back together and stay together,” Moseley said. “You know that old saying, ‘If Mama ain’t happy then nobody’s happy’? Not to denigrate the role of the father, but if Mama ain’t working, if Mama ain’t home, if Mama falls apart, it’s tough. One of the things we do is help Mama get back together.”

Boyles herself knows it takes a lot of effort—and faith—to get back together. But she, Adams and the other Killingsworth residents are doing their part.

“Everyone says I have a glow now,” Boyles said. “Because I have a network of people, I can manage. Today I lost my debit card. I freaked out! But it was the first time I can remember not thinking, ‘I need a drink.’”

She’s beginning to think about the future now—a future where her story doesn’t define her. She hopes to use her experience to guide other women through their own recovery.

“We don’t have to be ashamed. We don’t have to be scared,” Boyles said. After all they have received, she said, “Now we’ve got to give back.”

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

Posted or updated: 1/11/2018 12:00:00 AM
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