Eye of the storm

The Rev. Rob Dewey, founder and senior chaplain, counsels people in the community who are facing life's traumas, including homicides, drownings and fatal car wrecks.

It all started when the Rev. Rob Dewey, police officer turned Episcopal priest, saw a need for chaplains at police scenes to counsel and support those affected, from first responders to victims and their families.

The need became an unfunded dream that became Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, a growing nonprofit Judeo-Christian ministry turning 25 years old.

Its chaplains have counseled countless residents who have landed, by choice or by fate, at the doorstep of violent death and life's other most devastating traumas.

Its chaplains respond 24/7 to people ravaged by suicide and murder, fires and fatal car wrecks, drownings and floods, as well as those who respond to these events as part of their lives' daily work.

There was a day when Dewey, the chaplaincy's founder and senior chaplain, wrote thank-you notes to donors on his home typewriter.

Now, 25 years later, he is one of 120 FBI chaplains nationwide and is part of a team that responds to airline crashes and other mass disasters. He has traveled the country helping others create similar programs.

And his brainchild, at first an adjunct ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, has grown to four staff members and a lengthy roster of volunteer lay people and chaplains.

But the soul of the chaplaincy's success?

The people who have faced life's most horrific events and survived their aftermath.

In 1994, Georgetown Police Maj. Spencer Guerry pulled over a car with expired plates when the driver, fresh from a drug deal, shot him in the face.

Minutes later, a patrol car whisked the officer's wife, Sally Guerry, along the long and lonely ride from Georgetown to MUSC's emergency room.

When the young teacher stepped through the ER doors, she was alone. Her family and friends were either unaware of what had just happened or too far away to have arrived yet.

That's when she met Dewey.

The chaplain went with Guerry when she first saw her husband, a Moncks Corner native unconscious on a hospital bed, his face marred, machines beeping, his life ebbing away.

Dewey prayed with her then, prayed that Spencer would hold on until their sons arrived so they could say what they needed to their father.

Around 4 a.m., James and Ryan arrived. They were 8 and 10.

Guerry paused. How could she possibly tell them what just happened to their father, a man who was president of their school parent-teacher organization, who volunteered with the Boys Scouts and served his town as assistant police chief?

She turned to Dewey.

"Pray with me a minute before we go talk to the boys," asked Guerry, a teacher with a deep Catholic faith whose parish priest had not arrived yet.

And so Dewey did. He prayed that God would grant her the strength and the words to tell her boys what happened.

"See what questions they have," Dewey suggested. The boys would ask as much as they wanted to know. Or could stand to know. Then, he went with her to tell them.

And when the boys didn't want to see their daddy, not looking that way, Guerry decided to have them tape record what they wanted to say so she could play it for her husband.

Dewey hunted down a tape recorder. Then, he took each boy aside to record those final words. He went with Guerry when she played it for Spencer.

And he stayed as her husband died.

He accompanied her when the staff discussed organ donation. And when she discussed it with her boys.

He was there when Spencer was buried with that tape recorder. And he was there for the trial and verdict and when David Hill was executed for the murder.

Through the 19 years since Spencer died - through the memorials and the court dates and the happier days like graduations - Dewey has supported Guerry and her sons.

Those boys are grown now.

James is 28, a police officer at the University of South Carolina. Ryan, now 30, is working on a master's degree in public administration.

Each recently married. Each asked Dewey to offer a reading at his wedding.

"Anything we needed from him, he'd be there," recalled James Guerry. "He was there that first day. There has been a connection between us and him since then."

Through it all, the Guerrys have felt they weren't just another family devastated by another awful crime to which Dewey and chaplains like him respond every day.

After all, when the 20th anniversary of Spencer's death comes March 9, Guerry knows that her old friend will be there.

"He was sent into my life that horrific night," she said. "And the fact that he is still involved in my life and my sons' lives is testament to the kind of man he is."

This past May, Christie Moultrie was driving with her 11-year-old daughter when someone flagged her down.

Get to the store!

She rushed to D&V Convenience Store on Savannah Highway, a rural family-owned shop where her sister was a clerk. Moultrie and her daughter walked in and saw blood.

Then they saw Crystal Johnson, wife and mother of three children, dead on the bathroom floor, a gash on her head.

"I suddenly exploded," Moultrie recalled. "I lost it."

She could not think, couldn't remember her husband's phone number or summon words or corral her thoughts.

Shortly after, she met chaplain John Smith.

She recognized the man; he served as pastor of a Baptist church in nearby Ravenel.

Though a stranger, he asked to pray with her. It forced her to close her eyes and summon her faith. It forced her to stop and breathe.

"That prayer really helped to calm things down so I could function and say what I saw and communicate with the police and everyone else there," she said.

Moultrie and the sister she'd just lost, 11 months apart in a large and close-knit family, lived with adjoining yards in the Adams Run community. Johnson's children then were ages 9, 12 and 15.

When they all left that nightmarish scene, chaplain Smith gave the family his number.

"Call any time, no matter what time of day," he said.

Since then, if they don't call, Smith calls them. He asks what the family needs and has helped them access everything from counselors to financial help. He stops by to talk and to pray.

And he has gone to her children's school awards celebrations and football games, events that their mom used to attend.

He helps them all realize they aren't alone, that violence has hurt so many.

"He offers prayers, offers assistance and offers to do things with her children," Moultrie said. "It's just really helpful."

Moultrie still looks to her own pastor at Grace Chapel Baptist for counsel. But Smith shows them that the larger community also cares about their loss.

"We know there is someone on the outside looking out for us," she said. "The chaplains don't only look out for their own family and church members. They come out into the community and help others."

The chaplains don't only minister to victims and their families. They also reach out to law enforcement and other first responders who deal with death and violence in their normal work.

For Kenny Barfield, help came after getting into an off-duty car wreck in 1996 in which he was ticketed by an officer in his own department. He disagreed and began his own investigation, angry and hurt over accusations that left him at odds with his colleagues of 25 years at the Charleston Police Department.

"You question why this is happening, why people can't understand. I grew up in that police department," he said. "Then something like this happens."

His brother-in-law finally called Dewey, who came to Barfield's home one Sunday.

"Just having him there as counsel, it eased the tension. He was an outside person who could see both sides of it," Barfield recalled. "He had a calming effect on a bad situation."

Dewey also reminded Barfield of his faith and that God has a plan even in the worst of times. He reminded Barfield that things work out.

"And they did," Barfield said. "God had a different plan for me. I just needed to be shown."

He accepted a punishment, which he said involved being transferred for misuse of city property related to pursing his own investigation.

However, he also finished his career with the department, retired six years ago and began work as a solicitor's office investigator.

It's far from the devastating events chaplains often deal with. "I was by far just a speck of what they do every single day," Barfield said.

But he appreciated the help when he needed it.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.