Police Chaplains answer the call

Police Chaplains volunteer their time...

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - When dispatchers send first responders to crime scenes and disasters they often call for a different kind of back-up, they call police chaplains affiliated with local law enforcement agencies and fire departments.

Men and women like Ron Matthews, Jon-Stephen Hedges and Jerry Gray answer those calls day and night.

Their mission as chaplains is to provide comfort and support. At time the work is deeply personal.

Fr. Matthews remembers being called to the Borderline mass shooting just after midnight.

" Not everyone was aware an officer was down, we found out Ron Helus did pass away, it was a solemn briefing."

He knew Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Helus, as well as Blake Dingman and Jake Dunham.

"This is the first call out in 19 years that I knew several of the victims, "said Fr.Matthews.

Jerry Gray, the founder of Chaplain 24/7,  keeps his Santa Barbara City and County Fire Department ,Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office, and the Red Cross chaplain jackets ready to go in his SUV. 

Gray had friends from his church missing when he first responded to the Montecito mudslide.

"There was a couple from our church that still wasn't located, so that process going though your mind, am I looking at someone that I know, that's unrecognizable, that is what really stuck out.," said Fr. Gray.

They were found alive, but 23 other people died, including a 17-year-old Eagle Scout and a two-year-old girl who are still missing.

Jon-Stephen Hedges, who has Fr. Jon on his license plate, carries their pictures in a Moleskine notebook.

"Jack and Lydia, I will carry them in my heart until they are found."

These unpaid volunteers are graduates of the International Conference of Police Chaplains (ICPC).
They are sponsored by chaplain programs at one or more agencies where they are assigned  by dispatchers to go to crime scenes and natural disaster. Sometimes they respond in other counties, states and countries.

When coping with the loss of a loved one, they say silence is okay.

"Sometimes there is nothing, I would say, all we can do is stand there and cry together," said Fr. Jon.

"We have a ministry of presence, just being there, it is overwhelming how people will let you embrace them at the worst moment," said Fr. Mathews.

Grief can bring more than tears.

"There was one dear to me, up to this moment, who lashed out in that moment with anger," said Fr. Jon.

If someone requests a minister from a specific faith: a priest, a rabbi or other clergy the chaplain will make that happen ASAP or as soon as possible.

But to Fr. Mathews ASAP has another meaning.

He says ASAP stands for "Always Say A Prayer."

But if they don't want prayers, that is okay, too.

"I feel like I have been able to provide the comfort that is needed and the presence that the family members need regardless of religious background or no religious background," said Fr. Matthews.

He said they are not there to proselytize.

Chaplains also make time to help first responders through traumatic times.

Pat McElroy retired from his position as Santa Barbara City Fire Chief following the Montecito mudslide.

 "To have somebody like Jerry available to talk to you is a real blessing for people in the field," said McElroy.

"You interact with them, you don't ask them how they are feeling you just say I am glad you are here and then let them respond don't want to put them in a position where they have to say I feel bad or good or things like that, you let it flow naturally," said Fr. Gray.

A Rainbow filled the sky over Santa Barbara as  Fr Jon talked about his work and faith. He said nature can be healing.

"There are things that come to us, I think to show us proof of life in the middle of a terrible event."

Fr. Jon had a similar feeling when he saw wildlife in Paradise, California while he responded to the Camp Fire.

Anniversaries can be healing, too.  

Father Matthews never misses the yearly memorial for Alaska Airlines Flight 261 that went down in the ocean killing all 88 people on board. A sundial in memory of the victims is located in Port Hueneme.

"Often we form a circle of love and hold hands ."

Relatives of the victims still flock to him.

"He is very special, he is part of our family,"said Kim Ryan. One of Ryan's relatives was a crew member on the flight.

But reunions don't always bring closure.

"It is never really closed, you always have that loss, but that doesn't mean that life can't be good again and that is our hope.," said Fr. Matthews.

These chaplains preach self-care after responding.

"There is a point when even our compassion becomes fatigued, as I have often said, it is kind of like carpel tunnel of the soul," said Fr. Jon.

He said keeping a diary helps.

"I try to remember the lost," said Fr. Jon.

Fr. Gray said, "I get in my car and drive away, that is when the emotion comes over me."

They say being a police chaplain is a calling and they plan to answer the call whenever and wherever they are needed.


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