with Rev. Dawn Skerritt and First United Methodist Church:
As members of the clergy, we know that words have power. Power to heal or to harm, to build up or to tear down. We know that for those in positions of leadership, that power is magnified, and thus should not be taken lightly. Carelessness with words—particularly from those who have been vested with authority and charged with responsibility—is dangerous, even in the absence of any malice.
We do not know if Sheriff Jesse Slaughter has malice in his heart. That is known to him and to God alone. All we have are his words and actions.
These we condemn in the strongest possible terms.
In a radio interview on October 27th, Sheriff Jesse Slaughter used his words and social capital to make misleading, and even cruel, statements against the Rev. Dawn Skerritt, the First United Methodist Church, and the local unhoused population. A few days prior, an unhoused woman died on the property of First United Methodist Church. Her name was Dianna, and she had endured a lifetime of violence and neglect, and like so many people rich and poor, she suffered from the disease of alcoholism. Dianna died, according to the report released by Sheriff Slaughter in his role as coroner, from “natural causes” related to chronic alcoholism. Dianna had sought local resources and had tried to find a way to move forward in her life. However, the resources available and the care she needed were difficult for her to obtain. The two-fold struggles of alcoholism and homelessness can be insurmountable for many individuals. In Great Falls, the local Rocky Mountain Rehab program can cost in excess of $23,000. Psychiatric care is difficult to access, and providers are often scheduled out several months, even for critical cases and for folks who have good insurance.
In the interview, Slaughter blamed Rev. Dawn Skerritt and the First United Methodist Church for Dianna’s death, saying, “People are paying for it with their lives.” He was referring to the outreach at the church even though his own report made clear that Dianna’s death, while tragic, was the result of natural causes related to chronic alcoholism.
Sheriff Slaughter spoke in a demeaning way about Rev. Dawn Skerritt several times, but more than that, he belittled her title, authority, and education. Referring to Rev. Skerritt as “preacher or whatever,” Sheriff Slaughter with his words undermined seven years of post-secondary education, an arduous process to serve in the capacity of minister within the United Methodist Church, and the many years of service she has dedicated to the church.
This is an irresponsible, reprehensible use of the platform he has been given. Whether the words were spoken in outright malice, carelessness, or dangerous ignorance, Sheriff Slaughter’s comments are baseless and unbecoming of a public official.
If the community at FUMC did not exist and Dianna had never been there, would she not have still died from the disease of alcoholism? Maybe not. It’s possible that without a community of care, her life would have been claimed sooner by the violence she regularly experienced. Or else she might have frozen to death elsewhere due to lack of shelter.
In late March of this year, the remains of another unsheltered person—who remains unidentified—were found on the First Presbyterian Church property, having lain there through the winter. That church has not been blamed for the person’s death. If one church is culpable for the death of a person on their property, are all churches responsible in the same manner? How much more is a city or county culpable for the neglect and lack of care that allows such things to happen and be summarily forgotten? Sheriff Slaughter offers no such diatribe like the one he leveled at a person and a group of people attempting to solve the problem of unsheltered people in Great Falls that so many would prefer to ignore—or rather, to displace and forget.
No one is claiming that the work of First United Methodist Church, now led by Rev. Skerritt, is an ideal solution. But an ideal solution does not exist, and as long as there are people in need, the Church will continue to try to meet those needs in spite of petty bullying by elected officials.
In this interview, Sheriff Slaughter claims that the church is not inviting folks inside and caring for them, but FUMC is still providing warm clothing and food, and has even opened their building up as a warm space to spend the cold winter hours of evening when no other shelter is available. The exact solution that Sherriff Slaughter himself mentioned is what FUMC is doing, and trying to gain partners in trying to keep all of our community members safe and alive this winter.
Sheriff Slaughter has a choice to make: a choice between embracing a spirit of collaboration in fighting the ever-worsening crisis of homelessness in our community or living into a narrative of fear and bigotry. We pray that as a servant of the people he will choose the former, rescinding his hateful comments and pledging to work with those he has a duty to serve, whether they are housed or not.
But until that time, we stand in solidarity and love with Rev. Skerritt, First United Methodist Church, and all who are victimized by a culture of neglect and fear.
Signed, the clergy of the Great Falls Ministerial Association.
Rev. Tammy Bull, New Hope Lutheran Church
Rev. Jessica Crane-Munoz, Sunrise Presbyterian Church
Rev. Barbara Gwynn, retired ELCA clergy
Rev. Scott Hedegaard, Redeemer Lutheran Church
Rev. Marcia Lauzon, Episcopal Diocese of Montana
Rev. Jessica Obrecht, Bethel Lutheran Church
Debra Oldfield, S.A.M., St. John’s Lutheran Church
Rev. John Ritchie, PCUSA clergy at-large
Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith, First Congregational United Church of Christ
Rev. Stephen Underwood, Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)