Chaplain's Column: Disasters, Derelicts and Dirtbags

Shit happens.

A woman calls because her drunk boyfriend has come home with "beer muscles" and assaulted her and her child. A motor vehicle accident results in a gruesome decapitation. An eight-year old girl is discovered to be the target of the perversions of a well-respected male in the community--her father, pastor, teacher, or family friend. Three young children burn to death in a preventable house fire. As a law enforcement officer, you have to respond. You had better be ready and able. And you ought to be first rate at what you do. Chaplains ought to be the same with their tasks.

The world in which we live is a crazy place--filled with all kinds of fruits and nuts. And I'm not talking about all of the wonderful cakes to which we have to look forward this time of year. I am continually amazed at the new lows to which people will go as they show their depravity.

Since pastors are extremely holy people and well-trained in making formal prayers at special events, it makes perfect sense that they should not be a part of the regular activities on the street. I mean, for last rites, it might be an option to call one in. They are neatly dressed and would blush at the thought of someone having a spit cup in the car. For an investigation centered around crime scenes with pentagrams and miscellaneous other religious ritual paraphernalia, call in the religious experts. Call in the pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, theologians, and local university scholars. Makes sense, right? Right.

So why in the world have a "chaplain" along? My intention isn't to ride the coattails of previous columns here at, but to continue to help us all--LEOs and chaplains--continue in helpful dialogue that moves us forward in providing practical services. We don't want to be in the way. We (at least I hope) are not here because we are "wannabes" anymore than particularly religious LEOs who want to help the chaplain are "wannabe" chaplains or pastors. Okay, okay--so we have all had struggles in these areas and seen the nightmare Christian cop or chaplain, but with today's great networks, the role, training, and expectations of well-trained, dedicated, properly motivated chaplains is continually evolving. And it is helping.

I think I speak for the majority of chaplains when I indicate that we don't want those super-refined, extremely eloquent, hyper-polished preachers/administrators/evangelists on the street, either--unless he or she is a chaplain. The drum I continue to bang has been banged by our excellent forerunners and current fellow chaplains for a long time: pastor/rabbi/imam/priest does NOT equal "chaplain. "

Many of us have heard the horror stories of pastors who deem themselves "chaplains" in the event of particularly difficult incidents or tragedies. I am not questioning their motives in all cases. They may mean well. But so did Hitler.

I remember well the stories of Oklahoma City and 9-11 responders and others sharing of unusually harmful statements and demeanors shared by chaplains in the aftermath. Until I found myself in the thick of the response to public safety personnel on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in the aftermath of Katrina, I thought that they were lies at worst and exaggerations at best. Then reality set in.

On two different occasions, I learned of chaplains offering their services by sharing that this entire catastrophe was an easily readable necessary outcome of the construction of casinos on the coast and the degradation of morality in New Orleans. Now I am not interested in discussing the truth of such biblio-theological statements, but I am interested in setting the record straight: such statements would never come from a properly trained, selflessly motivated, others-oriented chaplain. Call the person what you will who makes such statements, but please don't use the term "chaplain."

I remember well one of the emphases of a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, wherein we were taught to be a "non-anxious" presence. The chaplain is to be a means of the grace of God in the midst of the worst of situations. Among other duties, and subject to the agency, he or she may be trained in some of the same practical aspects of patrol as the officer: defensive tactics/PPCT, Verbal Judo, pepper spray, firearms, restraints, radio--the list goes on. Death notifications are incidents where it is especially helpful to have a properly trained and oriented chaplain along. But the chaplain is primarily there to be. By their presence, they represent God. In the middle of gang violence. In the patrol car on a ride-along. While the family arrives to see their grandmother whisked away by the hearse. At 0330 when you just have to ask that question or, as Melodie Swan put in a recent column here at, need to bitch. At times when an officer is fed up with his or her second job, sergeant, lieutenant, wife, boyfriend--whatever the case may be. That is part of what properly trained chaplains do.

"Chaplains" are trained and exposed to a wide variety of situations on a regular basis. They are in touch with the common person. Indeed, they are the common person in whose lives the grace of God becomes real and has a chance to be shared with others. For some spiritual leaders not really doing the work of a chaplain, it is a plain case of doing the best they know how. They observe a need and do what they can in the best way they can. But in today's world, with the wide variety of excellent resources, training, and networks, there is almost no excuse. Let's continue to work together and confront the challenges of the times in which we live. Let's help one another. Let's help do our part to serve and protect. In the best of times, in the worst of times. Authentic chaplaincy is challenging and very different from being a parish spiritual leader.

In the real world, shit happens. Through real chaplains, grace happens.