Other side of the badge
Harry Sewell stepped down as Mount Pleasant’s police chief on New Year’s Eve, but his retirement didn’t last much more than an hour or so.
Soon after turning in his uniform, Sewell picked up his Bible and hit the streets as a crisis chaplain. As most folks were gearing up for a night of celebration, Sewell was strolling through downtown Charleston with his new boss, ready to help police if a tragedy should arise.
Sewell’s first week with the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy unfurled in a blur of introductions, training sessions and visits to area emergency agencies as he settled into life on the other side of the badge. But Sewell’s not complaining. Far from it. He’s at peace with his decision and visibly excited about his new calling.
“I’m just thrilled to death, I really am,” he said. “I’m not sure about what lies in front of me. But I’m excited to be able to reach out to the first responders and the victims and help in whatever way I can.”
The chaplaincy, based in North Charleston, is a faith-based organization that ministers to crime victims, police and emergency workers in distress throughout the Lowcountry. Sewell now serves as the senior deputy chaplain, working closely with the group’s founder and lead chaplain, Rob Dewey. The group, formed in 1990, also has 19 volunteer chaplains.
Sewell, 52, takes over for former Chaplain Eddie Driggers, who was recently named North Charleston’s new police chief. Driggers replaces Jon Zumalt, who is retiring this month.
Like Driggers, Sewell is a veteran lawman with a strong faith background. He has been active for years at First United Methodist Church on Isle of Palms. He serves as a main speaker for the contemporary service, leads a men’s prayer group, works with youth and plays guitar and sings in the praise band.
Sewell, who hopes to become an ordained minister, also has done a lot of mission work with younger church members, traveling to Alabama, West Virginia and other states to build and repair homes for needy folks.
“He’s just a very committed, enthusiastic person with a lot of vitality, a good sense of humor and good balance in his life,” said the Rev. David C. Surrett, minister of First United Methodist Church. “I think this is going to be a great fit for him.”
Driggers agreed. He thinks Sewell’s law enforcement background will be a great benefit to him in his new role, though it takes a little getting used to being on the other side of the crime scene tape.
“You’re still looking out for the best interests of the first responders, but it’s a different role being outside the tape,” he said. “That role has to be a calling as well, just like law enforcement was a calling.
“Harry is going to have the opportunity to touch a lot of people in that position.”
A passion to serve
Sewell got his start in law enforcement as a police officer for the State Ports Authority. Going in, he viewed the job mostly as an opportunity for stable employment with the state. But he soon fell in love with the structure and discipline of law enforcement, its camaraderie and the opportunity it presented to be of service to others.
After two years at the port, he got a job as a police officer in his native Mount Pleasant in 1990. He rose through the ranks, earning a reputation as a solid, professional and compassionate cop. In 2007, town officials appointed him police chief after Roddy Perry’s death from cancer.
Sewell said he felt a deep passion for police work. But a few years ago, he began to feel the tug of another calling as well.
Over the years, he had become more and more active in his church, and the pull of his faith was strong. That was abundantly clear to those who knew him well.
“He didn’t need to tell you. We could all see it,” said Kristen Lesesne, director of ministry for First United Methodist Church. “He was glowing with it.”
Sewell said his wife, Jeanette, urged him to follow his heart and his faith. “She sat me down and said ‘Does God have to hit you over the head for you to start moving in that direction?’ ”
Sewell decided it was time to pursue a new path in the ministry and began preparing to submit his retirement papers. His first thoughts centered on becoming an ordained minister and going to work in the church.
Before that could happen, Dewey showed up at Sewell’s office in November with an unexpected offer and a startling revelation.
Dewey explained that Driggers was planning to leave the chaplaincy to become North Charleston’s new police chief. Dewey felt at peace with Driggers’ move, but he also needed help, and he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do. He told Sewell the answer came to him in the middle of the night.
“At 2 a.m., the Lord woke me up and said ‘Go talk to Harry,’ ” Dewey said. “I told (Sewell) ‘God has put it in my heart that you are supposed to become deputy senior chaplain. … I feel like God is calling you to be with us.’ ”
Sewell had worked closely with the chaplaincy over the years and had served as vice president of its board of directors. But he and Dewey had never discussed him coming to work for the organization before.
“I said ‘Rob, this is kind of scary. Give me a few days to pray about it,’ ” Sewell recalled. “I did, and I accepted the position.”
Still a protector
For Sewell, the job seemed a natural fit. He knew first-hand the type of grisly, tragic and unnerving events police, firefighters and paramedics encounter in the course of their jobs. Sewell said he has felt honored — blessed, even — to provide comfort to those folks, as well as crime victims struggling to cope with loss and adversities.
“That’s where I’ve always loved to be, with somebody who is hurting,” he said, to give them words of encouragement or just a hug.
Last year, the family of Dara Watson cited Sewell by a name in a letter to The Post and Courier thanking those who offered support and help when the 30-year-old Mount Pleasant woman went missing in February. She was later found dead in the Francis Marion National Forest, killed by her fiancé before he took his own life. During the week-long search for her body, the family wrote, Sewell and others prayed and grieved with her relatives.
Sewell said there have been many such occasions over the years, and he is ready to help again whenever he is needed — badge or no badge.
“I’m still a protector,” he said. “I will be just protecting in a different way, working on the nurturing side of the things instead of carrying a gun.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.