Born on Christmas Day, and with a name that means “helper of mankind,” Alexis Twito jokes that she was destined to become a pastor. Today she is coordinator of Milwaukee’s Chaplaincy Program, a partnership launched in October 2015 between the police department and the Salvation Army in a city experiencing one of the highest murder rates in the country. Pastor Alexis now oversees 40 volunteers who tend to families and communities experiencing trauma. She talked to Trace contributor Kerry Shaw about what it’s like to try to comfort people in the worst moments of their life.
I don’t think it’s an accident that the year that Milwaukee has the highest homicide rate in decades is the year we start a chaplaincy program. I think they needed us. Somehow the universe laid it on the hearts of the people who got the program started, saying, we’re going to need the faith community.
We work in partnership with the Milwaukee Police Department. We don’t have badges. The police decide if and when they want us at a crime scene. We’re typically called to incidents involving a very young victim, or where there is a large crowd, so that we can minister to the community, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule.
A third of cases we get called to are homicides, and almost all of them are gun-related. I can only think of one that wasn’t; it was a stabbing. In August, when there was unrest across Milwaukee after an officer-involved shooting, we were called to the riots, and we were asked to be present for about 10 days after as tensions simmered. Mostly we were there to be peacekeepers and a positive presence as crowds lingered and gathered. We’ve also supported families after suicides, sudden infant deaths, and deadly house fires.
The driving force for our program came after a 5-year-old girl, Laylah Petersen, was shot to death in November 2014. It was traumatic — not only on the family, but on the officers, too. The scene was terribly sad: a child sitting on her grandfather’s lap, at home, where she’s supposed to feel the safest, and 14 bullets come flying through the window. Laylah was hit in the head.
I was a pastor at a nearby Lutheran church. When the police captain in the district asked if I’d go to the house, I said yes, of course, but I had no idea what I was going to do.
I parked my car a few blocks away, and for five minutes, I just sat there and prayed. I said, “Lord, use me well. Give me the words that can bring comfort and help me help this family know that even in the midst of this pain, You love them and are with them.”
For about three hours, I sat on the footstool near the grandmother’s chair. We talked and she told me stories about Laylah. At one point, I asked if she wanted to pray and she did, so we held hands and prayed.
In the days after the shooting, I stayed by the grandmother’s side, whether it was at a press conference, or a prayer vigil in Laylah’s honor. I also talked with the kids at Laylah’s visitation. Some of them had questions like: “Is she going to be scared in the dark?” and “Is this forever?” I remember the looks on their parents’ faces. There’s no parenting manual for how to respond. There’s no pastor manual, either. But I knew that the adults’ grief made it hard to come up with answers, so I tried to offer some.
When the kids wanted to know if Laylah was wearing a hat because of where the bullet went, I said yes. When they wondered why she was cold, I explained how the heart works, keeping the blood pumping, which keeps the body warm. Layla’s family had donated her heart, and that was something tangible the kids could understand. Mostly, I told the truth. Too often we dismiss kids because of their youthfulness and don’t give them credit for the depth of understanding they do have.
As chaplains, our goal is to help people get through a traumatic incident a little bit more smoothly than they would without us. We pray with them if that’s something that they want. We try to connect them with the services they need, whether it’s financial help around the burial, counseling, or help cleaning up the home. What a lot of people don’t realize is that these incidents aren’t just difficult for all the emotional and spiritual reasons we imagine — they can be devastating to daily life. After a shooting, for example, there may be bodily fluids, brains, and blood in the carpet. The police don’t handle that.
A lot of what we do is just listening to the family members’ emotions: anger or frustration or grief, or all of those. We see people who are mad at God, we see people who are calling to God. We see people who are tearful, while others are so shocked they don’t seem to be showing any emotion. These are all natural responses when a life is taken senselessly.
People often want to know if their loved ones were in pain, or if they died quickly. I tend to say nothing because the general rule for a chaplain in my role is: Don’t lie to people. It’s not helpful. That doesn’t mean we give all the information. But the truth is, most of the time, I have no idea if their loved one suffered. Generally, I’ll shift the question or let it hang. When they ask, “Why did this happen?” I admit I don’t know. I think our job is to listen when people ask the questions they have to ask. There has to be a place for that anguish to go.
The other piece of our work is caring for police officers. They see people at their worst, and they see people who’ve experienced the worst — whether it’s the effects of poverty or some horribly violent crime. Seeing that all day, every day, wears on you. And I imagine the work is even tougher after what happened in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, when police officers were targeted and shot. There’s a bubbling tension between police and their communities all across the nation. So, just as we want families at a crime scene to know they’re not alone, we want officers to know that somebody will be there for them, too.
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Seeing gun violence up close this way has made me more convicted that we need safer gun technology. I’d love to see guns stowed away in safe places and with trigger locks. I also think it’s really hard for officers to do their jobs when there are so many firearms on the street. And yet I know that in the communities we’re in, people don’t feel safe if they don’t have a gun. So it’s a Catch 22 — people have guns to make them feel safe, but having them means they’re readily available. I get how complicated it all is, but … it’s hard to watch your city bleed to death.
Laylah’s case has really stayed with me. It’s remarkable how someone I never met has changed my life. Not only has she changed my heart, but I’m doing a different kind of ministry now. I used to serve a congregation, and now I work at crime scenes.
It’s the most amazing job because I get to be with people in their most intimate moments, in these times of deep pain and loss. Sometimes people say something terribly sad or incredibly bold. Often we think of these traumatic incidents as the worst thing people experience, which is true, but families also display incredible love and support for each other amid this pain, which is just beautiful. It’s a privilege to witness.
I don’t always cry, but sometimes I do. I used to think that pastors couldn’t cry but I realized that was silly and got over it. Certainly you never want to put families in a position where they feel the need to comfort you. But if tears are falling down your face as people experience grief, it’s a sign of empathy.
This summer I thought about doing other work because I’m single, I’m young, I can go anywhere. In August, just after the riots, I was very close to accepting a position with a congregation in New York. I was praying about this and I got the conviction that I need to be in Milwaukee right now. Not that there’s something amazing about me, but this city needs people of action, integrity, and faith. It needs folks who care, and who are willing to get in the trenches, and I feel like I’m one of those people. It was a really clarifying moment: Even though there might be great opportunities elsewhere, I need to be in Milwaukee right now. So I am.
[Photo: Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP]