"Good days, bad days..but never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up, you put one foot in front of the other, and you do your job, which is a mystery and a surprise. You have no idea, when you get in that rig, what God is calling you to. But He needs you . . . so keep going. Keep supporting each other. Be kind to each other. Love each other. Work together. You love the job. We all do. What a blessing that is."
--Father Mykal Judge
Beloved New York City Fire Department Chaplain
First official casualty of 911, pulled from the lobby of 1 World Trade Center
Trying to Follow in their Footsteps
When I served in the Corps, even the roughest, toughest Marines spoke reverently of their chaplains. Chaplains are the backbone of the Marine Corps, their inspiration and their comfort. They also starved with the ragged troops at Valley Forge, and fought side by side in the fiercest hand-to-hand combat. Four chaplains aboard ship gave up their seats on life rafts so sailors could board during World War II. I have fond memories of the chaplains that were there for me in my service. At age forty, I wanted to trade in my badge to be one of them and make my best attempt to follow their path of almost staggering self-sacrifice.
You may be asking, "What exactly does a chaplain do?" At its basic level, a chaplain is a person called to serve the people who serve us. They are called to handle the toughest situations in our lives, usually involving death and other dangerous situations. Many work in hospitals and hospices and others, like myself serve police officers and firefighters.
Chaplains see firsthand the agony people go through. Our goal is to 'walk alongside,' to comfort by being there in any way we are needed. Often, I am summoned to visit alienated people in the community, people who are disconnected from family, friends, and church. Often these lonely people have no one else to call but the local police department. Every call is different. It could involve visiting someone who is contemplating suicide and would like some spiritual answers to show them that despite how they feel they are indeed valuable. It could be comforting frantically hysterical family who have just lost an infant--or a beloved grandfather. Completed suicides are unfortunately far too common, and they never, ever get easier to bear. One time, I was called to assist in feeding hungry people at a bus depot when their connecting line was snow-bound. Hospitals will also call when their on-site chaplains are unavailable; I have sat at the bedsides of many terminal patients, who have thought they were utterly alone. Chaplains also offer invocations at community events, and assist with funeral and burial services.
But mostly, as a first responder chaplain, I am called to assist my officers.
Today's culture revels in the message that officers are heartless, power-hungry people. Society has forgotten that behind the uniform is just another person, an individual who is trained but still has to make split-second decisions in life or death situations, a person who has emotions and makes mistakes, a person who is trying their best to do what is right. Cops are human beings, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, just like the rest of us. Yes, there probably are some out there who have strayed from the initial ideals they once had. But they are few and far between, in my opinion. And despite the harsh criticism that cops so often receive, they are still the first ones we call and rely on in every dangerous situation. Society expects cops to be perfect, but there is little awareness out there that cops expect that of themselves as well--and each other. As hard as society is on a cop, he or she is ten times harder on themselves.
That's why chaplains are so needed. It is a rare calling that can require years of proving yourself trustworthy before an officer will open up and share what is inside. It involves being willing to commit to making yourself available twenty-four hours a day, 365 days per year by having an open door policy that encourages them to call anytime, anyplace, for anything. It also requires a desire to know the officer outside of work, as well as getting to know his or her family. Officers function by fighting their fears, and they don't want to admit them to themselves or anybody else. So much suppression often results in nightmares and avoiding emotions. These kind of pressures can nearly crush a family, and the divorce rate of first responders bears this out. A chaplain can provide a peaceful, non-judgmental ear where the officer can finally let their guard down. Chaplains are also pivotal in providing spiritual perspective when it comes to stress, burnout, and family/marriage dynamics. My officers expect me to be a walking list of resources of other local clergy, mental health professionals, and social services, and I am glad to provide what I know.
My community, once known as a 'cowboy town' has rapidly become a big city, and dangerous gang activity has sadly become as familiar to our neighborhoods as the graffiti on our buildings. More and more disturbed people are committing assaults in order to force the police to deadly action, known as "suicide by cop". Addictions to both legal and illegal opiates are now a national crisis, and are also creating irrational and violent behavior. Officers are now involved in shootings, far more than they ever imagined. I have witnessed firsthand how much a shooting affects a cop. Some leave the police force because of relentless second guessing, even when the evidence is emphatic that they had no choice. Post-traumatic stress becomes a new reality to many of them, and I believe that all of them would say that these tragedies leave wounds that never completely heal.
Although this event was not precipated by a police shooting, one of the most devastating tragedies in my work as a chaplain was the death of a sergeant. The shock was an earthquake that nearly tore apart the entire department. None of us could comprehend why this wonderful young man, who truly 'seemed to have it all'-- successfully advancing in his career, well-liked by his friends and loved by his children and wife, would quietly decide to end his life. I had worked with him, along with five other officers to build a gang task force and proudly counted him as friend. He was a walking dictionary and knew every criminal in our city by name. It was my job to deal with my grief through service, sharing a drink or a hug or a memory, being as available as I possibly could.
A chaplain is an individual of faith, educated by their denomination with at least a Master's of Divinity Seminary degree and approved by their denominational leadership for chaplaincy service. Most police and fire chaplains are volunteers, specially trained and ordained, or licensed ministers that respond to emergency situations. Most chaplains have been trained, at their own expense, through a police chaplaincy academy in all the areas that most people don't ever want to think about, such as how to notify family members of a death or critical incident. They are also trained in how to notify and provide spiritual support to entire law enforcement and fire department divisions and their families when there has been a death in their ranks. Because suicide, substance abuse, and depression are common tragedies in first responder professions, chaplains are trained thoroughly on multiple aspects of these issues, in everything from identification of symptoms, to possible interventions, to even coping with the aftermath.
Chaplains come when often no one else will. They do this because deep inside they have answered God's request to minister in the most dire of times. There is some sort of inner strength they have been given to do this task, but they still need your help...and your prayers. You don't find these men and women behind a pulpit. You find them on the street, at your home, walking through the smoke and debris, to bring the love of God to you when times are at their worst.