By Conor Hughes
As a firefighter and paramedic in Johannesburg, South Africa, Sharon Britz had seen her share of crime scenes.
Britz -- the new director of youth and student ministries at Main Street United Methodist Church in Greenwood -- wanted to be a paramedic for as long as she can remember.
“I just wanted to be where the action was,” Britz said. “And helping people was my main concern. I’ve always been a people person and I love people and helping so that’s what drew me to the medical line of work and then of course the action.”
After more than a decade of service, Britz found herself in the middle of a crime scene she’d never expected.
One morning in 1997, Britz stopped by her mother and stepfather’s house to drop off her infant daughter, Bonne, before starting a 24-hour shift. She found her mother and stepfather dead, each with gunshot wounds to the head.
“I first walked in and everything was open and I thought ‘This is strange,’ because they’re both very security conscious,” Britz said. “I found my stepdad first, who had a gunshot to his head and I could see from so many years of being a paramedic he’d passed away during the night and only later, while I was going through the house, I found my mom as well.”
Britz’s half brother Matthew Rijsdijk, who was 15 at the time, was convicted on two counts of murder for the shootings and spent 12 years in prison before being paroled.
“We still don’t know what happened there, but he went to prison for the murders,” she said. “The strange thing was that they had been with me that afternoon and when they left me, I said they must call me when they get home because my mom had a problem with her car. And she still called me that night to let me know they’d gotten home safely. So it happened sometime after that but during the evening.”
Several months later, with Britz still reeling from the deaths of her mother and stepfather, tragedy touched her life again.
On Feb. 6, 1998, Britz’s late mother’s birthday, she responded to a fire at a factory. When she arrived at the scene, the blaze had subsided and Britz began assess the situation.
“As we got there, there was basically no fire, it was just a matter of what we call damping down, so just a matter of killing the smoldering and ventilating the place and things like that,” Britz said. “I had just walked towards the door, and that’s the last I remember. I don’t remember anything after that.”
Though the people operating the factory did not have permits to keep flammable liquids on the property, they had been illegally filling barrels with paint thinner. As Britz was walking towards the building, the drums exploded.
“According to the guys, I went about 15, 20 meters up into the air, so that’s about 60 feet,” Britz said. “I woke up in ICU a couple of days later. That’s the day I learned flame wasn’t meant for humans.”
Britz sustained severe burns to her face, neck and lungs, a broken neck, two broken knees and a broken back, among other injuries, and was in and out of the hospital for years after.
“I’ve never fully recovered,” Britz said. “It’s just been a never ending thing. Since then, it’s just been in and out, in and out (of the hospital).”
Britz, who was active before the explosion and enjoyed such activities as hiking and jumping off roofs onto inflatables during firefighter training, was told she would likely be confined to a wheelchair or bed for the rest of her life.
“My daughter had her first birthday while I was lying in ICU, and there were times when I felt like taking my life,” she said. “You’re so fit and active and now all of a sudden, you’re a couch potato. I could sit up for five minutes max and then I would have to lie down again. I was basically bedridden for like two years.”
Although Britz regained the ability to walk, her injuries rendered her unable to continue working as a firefighter, so she turned her sights on nursing.
She had worked as a nurse for several years and volunteered at the Cancer Association of South Africa when she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, a diagnosis she laughingly calls her “40th birthday present.”
“It was just my regular checkup and that at the OBGYN because you go every year and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll do the mammogram,’ because back home, health insurance only pays for mammograms after the age of 40 unless your family has a history of cancer, and there’s no cancer in my family ever, not even going back to great grandparents,” she said. “He picked up one thing that looked like a tumor and automatically when I saw it, I knew it was cancer.”
Britz again had to rely on friends and family care for her daughter while she recovered from a double mastectomy and underwent more than eight months of chemotherapy.
“My first round of chemo was like a nightmare because I stopped breathing,” Britz said. “But from the day I was diagnosed, I was never negative, I was always positive and I always thought, ‘God brought me through the explosion, he’s brought me through everything that I’ve gone through and I knew this was just another obstacle, and I knew in the back of my mind that I was going to get through it. I was more concerned for my daughter and how she’s going to get through it.”
Britz beat cancer, but her challenges were far from finished. When her daughter was 16, Britz discovered she was using drugs, ranging from methamphetamine to ketamine. Bonne had started using when she was 14, but suffered from depression and epilepsy and, for a time, Britz attributed the symptoms of her drug abuse to her conditions.
“They manipulate you so much,” she said. “You ask them, ‘Are you using?’ and they say, ‘No, no, I’m not that stupid,’ and then you think, ‘OK, well, I guess not. I guess it’s the medical condition.’”
Before she discovered her daughter was struggling with addiction, Britz had been deeply involved in youth and prison ministry and had worked regularly with young people dealing with drug abuse. She said her experience helped her aid daughter through recovery.
“She went to about three short-term rehabs but it wasn’t for her, and every time she came out, she relapsed and finally I had to do this tough love thing, and I got her arrested and got a court order and got her sent to a court-ordered rehab,” Britz said. “My experience did make it easier, and I had actually worked through the steps myself, and so when she went to rehab I could relate to what she’s going through.”
When Bonne left rehab for the fourth time in February 2015, she was sober and dedicated to staying that way.
“She went in at the end of March and the first time I could see her was in October, and she said to me, ‘Thank you so much for doing what you did because if you didn’t do what you did, I would probably be dead by now,’” Britz said.
Around the same time, Britz was preparing to embark on a new phase in her life. She had decided to attend seminary in Indiana and she and her daughter were readying themselves to begin a new life in the United States.
“God was telling me Ministry USA and I had no inclination, no idea about what it meant and I prayed about it and I said, ‘You know, I’m just going to give it to God and what will happen will happen,’” she said. “She (Bonne) was actually excited. She said, “Aw mom, it’s going to be a new life, new beginnings.’ So I said to her, ‘We’ll see. We just have to wait and see what happens.’ So she would have come with me.”
But Bonne never got that new beginning. Before they left for the U.S., Bonne went to a bar with a friend and ordered a Sprite. While she wasn’t looking, someone drugged her drink and she was found unconscious and alone in a parking lot in the pouring rain.
“When I went to go and collect her, I thought she had relapsed, and of course I’m like a mad mom, I wanted to knock her head off,” Britz said. “The next day, we sat down and spoke, and some things came out and I examined her, and we found out she’d actually been raped. They’d put Rohypnol in her drink, raped her and dumped her in the parking lot, and luckily two students who were coming back at like 1, 2 in the morning from some other campus thing found her face down in the rain.”
The shock of the assault proved too much for Bonne to handle.
“I don’t think she dealt with it properly, and then in August 2015, she passed away,” she said, tears brimming in her eyes. “She just couldn’t get over that and then she actually overdosed on her medication. But I know she’s in a better place.”
Bonne was 18.
Not long after, Britz sold everything she owned an took the journey to the U.S., which she had planned to take with her daughter -- alone.
She graduated from seminary in Indiana and then went straight to Jacksonville, Florida, to work with Teen Challenge, a faith-based rehab program for teens. She was with Teen Challenge for six months before she realized she wanted a more stable position in a church community.
“I enjoyed it, I worked well with them, but I knew it wasn’t where God wanted me permanently,” Britz said. “It was almost like I was dying spiritually because I couldn’t get planted in a church because I worked on weekends and we would take the girls to a lot of different churches that supported teen challenge.”
She left Jacksonville in January and settled in Greenwoood.
“I got offered this position, one in Philadelphia and one in Alabama, but from the beginning when I applied for this one, it was like God said, ‘This is where you’re going to be,’ so that’s basically how I ended up here,” Britz said. “Something in the back of my head kept telling me Greenwood.”
Melanie Bosch, who has been friends with Britz since the two attended middle school together in Johannesburg, said she’s humbled when she thinks of Britz’s attitude despite what she’s been through.
“It’s been devastating for me to watch it, but to see how she copes with it and how she has grown through it is absolutely phenomenal,” Bosch said. “I don’t know any person on this Earth who could have gone through what she has and can still smile at the end of the day and make a joke. I don’t know how she does it. She gets divine strength from somewhere because it’s just unbelievable.”
Bosch, a native of Johannesburg, now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and said she was thrilled when she learned her friend would be moving so close.
“I was really super excited,” she said. “I think a lot of prayers came from her and myself that we could be nearer to one another. I always say that I’m going to look after her when she’s old because her body’s going to start to fall apart with what she’s been through. So it’s just awesome that she’s just a couple hours away and that’s all we need.”
Phil Thrailkill, pastor at Greenwood United Methodist Church, said he and his congregation are overjoyed to have Britz in Greenwood.
“We’re so glad to have her here,” Thrailkill said. “She’s just a ball of energy and love. Her history allows her to reach out to all kinds of people.”
Wylan Radcliffe, a 16-year-old member of Britz’s youth group, said he’s enjoyed her approach as director.
“First, I wasn’t sure because she brought a lot of things she’s learned from her time as a youth minister, but it was definitely a good change,” Radcliffe said. “I feel like our youth group is really going to grow.”
Britz said she looks at the pain in her past as a tool to help others.
“If I think of everything, it’s obstacles in your life that help make you stronger and help you to help other people that are going through similar things,” she said.
Contact staff writer Conor Hughes at 864-943-2511 or on Twitter@IJConorHughes.