The First United Methodist Church in Great Falls is photographed on Monday, July 25, 2022. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)
Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter expressed remorse this week over how he spoke about a Great Falls reverend during a radio interview in October when he criticized how the First United Methodist Church was handling unhoused people living on church property.
“I stand by my comments about the situation — that it wasn’t being handled correctly and that it was out of control,” Slaughter said in an interview with the Daily Montanan. “I probably shouldn’t have said my comments the way I said them, and I definitely shouldn’t have in any way said anything to point out Reverend Skerritt in that context.”
In the October interview on K’MON Country Radio following the death on church property of a woman who had been sleeping in the parking lot, Slaughter called out Rev. Dawn Skerritt’s role in handling the unhoused population. The interview prompted concern for Rev. Skerritt’s safety from at least one parishioner and a stern letter from other ministers who described the sheriff’s actions as “reprehensible.”
“This preacher or whatever she is that runs this thing is completely irresponsible,” Slaughter said in the radio interview. “She is hurting our community. It is beyond disgusting. And now people are paying for it with their lives.”
At the time, Slaughter said the church was not helping anyone and that it employed “political correct BS at its finest.”
In November, in the wake of rising police calls and arrests on the property, the church put up “No Trespassing” signs after conversations with the Great Falls Police Department.
Slaughter had not participated in those discussions, but this week, he commended the police department and Skerritt for their efforts, and he praised their solution.
“It’s one of those situations where, unfortunately, everything feels really divisive, as we come out of COVID and everything,” Slaughter said. “Definitely need to fix that.”
The loss of Dianna Cole
Dianna Cole was a 44-year-old woman who at the end of her life called the First United Methodist Church parking lot her home. She died on Oct. 19, her body found on the church’s property.
The coroner, Slaughter, released the cause of death as complications from chronic alcoholism.
Skerritt said Cole gave her a bouquet of flowers the Sunday before she died, which she said had been picked from yards in the neighborhood. This was their last interaction.
“I just thought it was sweet,” Skerritt said.
The church held a candlelight vigil in her honor alongside her family days after her passing, one well attended by church members, people without homes and staff from local nonprofits, she said.
She said the vigil helped the community process Cole’s passing, but it was also a moment to reckon with the church’s relationship with the Native American community.
“Dianna, being a Native American, it did not set well that she died on United Methodist church property with me,” Skerritt said. “I think about the blood that has been shed over the centuries and recognize that we have a lot of work to do.”
Her obituary said she loved to cook and draw and described her as someone with a huge heart.
“She was always ready to help her family and friends when she could,” the obituary read. “She loved to laugh and make others laugh too.”
Skerritt’s reaction to the initial comments
Last summer, the City of Great Falls sued the church over an encampment it allowed on its property, citing zoning restrictions. The complaint followed many public calls from residents and local business owners about unruly behavior and other problems.
As a result, the church issued eviction notices to people living in tents there. Months later, following Cole’s death, the church started discussions with law enforcement about possible solutions.
Skerritt said she found out about what Slaughter had said on the radio right after a meeting with the Great Falls Police Department where they had “finally” determined a path forward from what seemed like an impossible situation. One of her parishioners who was worried for her safety told her about it.
“I wished that Sheriff Slaughter would have reached out to me directly to ask what we were planning, what we had going on, before he did that,” Skerritt said.
She said she felt his comments were likely coming from a place of deep concern, but also that it was election season and the interview could have been part of his way of getting his message out. Slaughter ran unopposed in the general election and took home 22,047 votes, more than any candidate who ran unopposed in Cascade County.
“It didn’t sit well with me, and it didn’t sit well with lots of my parishioners, but I think we’re going to move past that,” Skerritt said. “And I still to this day would welcome a conversation, a civil conversation, with Sheriff Slaughter.”
Skerritt said in a text message on Thursday that Slaughter called her earlier that day to apologize.
In his interview with the Daily Montanan, Slaughter said that the upcoming election did not factor into his comments. However, he said that he had received dozens, if not close to 100, calls about problems with people staying at the church, and he also didn’t want to overstep the police department.
“I knew that the Great Falls Police Department was diligently working on that situation, and at the time that I commented about it, I was pretty frustrated,” he said.
In November, the clergy of the Great Falls Ministerial Association wrote a letter in solidarity with Skerritt and First United Methodist.
The letter chastised Slaughter for disrespecting Skerritt, for connecting her leadership to Cole’s passing, and for misusing his authority as an elected official.
“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,” the letter read.
Ten members of the clergy signed their names to the letter. An Open Letter of Solidarity Final Draft
“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,” the letter read.
Fair criticisms, costly solutions
Skerritt said she was thankful for the clergy members who were “bold enough” to put their names on the open letter addressing Slaughter’s comments.
“It’s unfortunate the way that it started, and that I would need that kind of outpouring of support, but I’m thankful to have it,” Skerritt said.
She also said the accusation Slaughter made in regards to the church not opening up its doors to the unhoused was “totally fair.”
“If you’re so gracious and so great and so loving, open the door and let them in and get them out of the cold,” Slaughter said in the October interview. “But you don’t want to because they’re acting, they’re committing behaviors and crimes that you don’t agree with.”
Skerritt offered a different explanation.
“The big key component to opening the doors when people have been in situations of extreme poverty, especially living in a survival mindset, is that you have to have 24-hour, round-the-clock security,” Skerritt said. “And that is cost prohibitive for any church”
For example, she said she talked with a shelter in Missoula that said it would cost a “couple $100,000 a month” to offer 24-hour security. However, she also said insurance companies have all but stopped covering churches that kept their doors open at all hours.
A new policy
Since Nov. 14, the church has had “No Trespassing” signs up in the parking lot to help mitigate crime on the property and in the neighborhood. Skerritt said another goal is to “not inflict further harm upon our unsheltered people.”
Police Captain John Schaffer said as of last Friday, there had been 269 calls to the property this year, up 93 calls since the end of July, which is one more than the total number of calls in 2021. He said arrests were up nearly 400 percent.
He said the calls were for disorderly conduct, public drinking and for disturbances, along with medical calls.
“We sat down and we said, some of the folks that are coming to your property just to drink, do drugs and commit crimes, those are the folks that we want to try to weed out and have them go elsewhere,” Schaffer said. “The folks that truly need the assistance of the church, we’re certain nobody wants to get in the way of that.”
He said that since the signs went up, the calls for service have essentially been non-existent, recognizing that other factors like weather could be at play. Schaffer said he didn’t think that throwing up signs at the church was the ultimate solution, but that the faith-based communities were in the best position to problem solve for the unhoused community.
Although Slaughter said he is not as directly involved on this issue as the police department, he said he’s worked with organizations downtown like the Chamber of Commerce. and he’s personally volunteered with the Great Falls Rescue Mission, a local shelter. He said there’s a lot of creative solutions and people dedicated to the issue.
“When people sometimes intend to do good things, there could be negative consequences,” Slaughter said. “When you decide to have a homeless encampment in a community, there’s a massive ripple effect, and those ripple effects need to be considered.”
Help from First United Methodist
The Rev. Skerritt said the church continues to offer services to the unhoused, including its sack lunch program and Tuesday night meals. It also provides a cold weather drop-in, where it allows people to have a safe, warm place to be between the hours when the library closes and the Great Falls Rescue Mission, the shelter nearby, opens on days that it’s freezing or below.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Sheriff Slaughter did apologize to Rev. Skerritt as he said he had planned to do.
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