Sunday, July 20, 2008

Of Cops and Compassion...

Of Cops and Compassion
By Chaplain John Knox

Last week my nine year old said something about a “cop” in a sarcastic tone of voice. I turned to him and told him very firmly that in the future he would respectfully refer to these men and women as “police officers.” He was a little surprised that his dad had gotten so “testy,” but of course he was too young to remember…
The shrill sound of my pager interrupted an otherwise peaceful and lazy Sunday afternoon. When I responded to the page, the dispatcher’s voice quivered slightly as she instructed me to report to the sergeant supervising a scene where a four-year-old had drowned.

My mind raced as I made the 15 minute trek across town. Among other things, I focused on the training I had completed a few weeks earlier with the Wichita Falls, TX police department. At the request of several officers, administrators had agreed to try a pilot volunteer chaplaincy program. Local ministers would take turns being on 24-hour call to respond to crisis situations.

I participated in the initial chaplaincy program offered by the police department for a variety of reasons. I felt the need, like most ministers, to be involved in the community in a meaningful way. The training was both extensive and enlightening. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the words of the dispatcher that afternoon. “Mr. Knox, we have a four-year-old drowning victim.”

I prayed for wisdom and a heart of compassion as the scene loomed in sight. The sergeant informed me that paramedics had not given up hope. They continued to perform CPR until the little boy, and the terrified mother arrived at the emergency room. I did what I could to comfort the family as prayers were answered before our eyes. Later that evening I talked briefly with a scared little four-year-old boy in a hospital gown adorned with little bears.

That spring afternoon in 1990 proved to be both a reality check, and an early indication of things to come. I went home and hugged by nine-month-old baby son a little longer than usual. I also came to the stark realization that perhaps I had gotten into more than I had bargained for. “Do I really want to be “involved” in the community to this extent?”

As I continued to fulfill the responsibilities of a volunteer chaplain, officers invited me to ride with them on their beat. I joined them for briefing, coffee breaks, and lunch meetings all hours of the day and night.

One crisp fall morning in October of 1992, an officer and I were attempting to take a quick coffee break when the dispatcher sent out a “blind call” for the first available unit. Someone had called 911 reporting a baby not breathing. As the officer I was with carefully navigated the patrol car through a busy intersection, he asked me, “Do you know how to do CPR on a child?” I barely had time to respond before both of us jumped out of the car and raced into the apartment.

The officer burned his hand, as he searched for any sign of the child in the unlit bathroom. I looked in the bedroom, and found the lifeless body of a twelve-month-old child. CPR was not needed. He was deceased. He had been drowned in the bathtub full of scalding water. The child’s mother was the perpetrator of this heinous crime.

I didn’t cry. I didn’t vomit at the sight of such a shocking and grisly scene. There wasn’t time. The yellow crime scene tape went up, and the tiny apartment in the housing projects was literally swarmed with investigators, and crime scene technicians in a matter of minutes. I do remember what the officer I was riding with said to me. “The next time someone tells you that all that cops do is sit in the donut shop, tell them about this incident this morning.”

The months went by at a rapid pace, and I slowly got over the initial shell-shock of life on the streets. I continued to ride with officers, and over time they became increasingly interested in using the services of the volunteer chaplains. We were called to the scenes of suicides, fatality car accidents, fires, and a host of other crises. We were also given the weighty responsibility of delivering death notifications. That job is never easy, and it will certainly never become routine.

One Monday evening in 1994 as I watched the 10:00 news with my family, reporters gave an account of a fatality car accident, which had just occurred in a neighboring county. I had the strange feeling that I was about to be responsible for breaking this terrible news to the survivors of the victim. The hunch proved to be correct. I met two rookie officers who were very relieved to see me, at a location not far from the victim’s home. The fears of the man’s family were confirmed as I identified myself as a police chaplain. The speech I had been instructed to rehearse had become all too familiar. “I am sorry to have to break this news to you, but…Is there anyone I can call for you?” This particular family handed me a list of names and phone numbers. It was an adult Sunday School roster. I asked the officers accompanying me to call several of the numbers, and within a matter of minutes, members of this lady’s church family enveloped her with their hugs, expressions of sorrow, and most of all, their presence. I slipped away to allow them some privacy in their grief, and quietly sobbed as I drove back to be with a wife who loved me, and two precious boys.

Unfortunately, not all the people we ministered to had such a report network. I will never forget the 28 year old lady whom I found curled up in a fetal position in the tiny conference room adjacent to the hospital ER in the summer of 1992. Her husband was dead on arrival after suffering an apparent heart attack. She had not even put her shoes on before boarding the ambulance that had attempted to transport him down a road that would hopefully lead to recovery. “Do you have a minister I can call for you?” “No.” Do you have friends I can contact?” “We are new to the area.” “I don’t know anyone…” They didn’t tell us what to say in situations like this in Greek readings or in exegesis courses, so I just held her hand, as we awaited the arrival of out-of-state relatives.

I have grown to love the officers, troopers, and support personnel in this field. Over time they have accepted me into their very private world. Some extraordinary friendships continue to form, as each of us fulfill our respective roles. They are indeed special people who indeed do a lot more than just eat donuts.

Ministry out on the streets continues me things that educational institutions cannot teach. I am learning to be more grateful for my family and friends. Life is truly just a mist… I am realizing how foolish it is to be petty or unforgiving. Life is far too precious to waste our energies in such a foolish and ungodly way.

I am now blessed to serve as chaplain in Region I for The Texas Department of Public Safety. I am also serving as chaplain for the Granbury Police Department.  And the Hood County Sheriff's Office claims me as well.  I have learned a lot in 18 years. I pray for my troopers and officers’ everyday. Why don’t we all pray for these special servants? After all, it could be your home they are racing to, to save a life.

The Ministry of Presence

The Ministry of Presence?

I am getting too old the ride the midnight shift with the police officers that I provide chaplaincy services for in Granbury. I am not a college student who can get by on 2 or 3 hours of sleep anymore. But I had a short break this week, and decided to join my friends on the late shift. We had not been on the streets too long that night when a call of a fight in progress at a local hotel came through. I figured it was a couple of drunks getting into it after returning from a local bar. The number #1 rule in law enforcement, and crisis ministry is: Assume nothing. It turned out to be a man and his estranged wife fighting in the confines of a hotel room. A cute little 10 year old girl found herself literally sandwiched between two belligerent parents. Dad was angry and mom was tweaking on methamphetamine.

The officers immediately separated the volatile adults. I was given the duty of taking the terrified little girl down the lobby, and thus out of earshot of the investigation. The little girl was not assaulted, but she was shaking uncontrollably. I asked her if she wanted a blanket. I assured her that I could secure one easily. She was just scared. My new friend just needed someone to hug her and hold her hand. I held her hand, as we sat in silence… All kinds of thoughts raced through my mind. For a second, my mind went back to the training room at the Wichita Falls Police Dept.

Almost 18 years ago I underwent the initial training to become a volunteer law enforcement chaplain. The training was intended to prepare us to minister to people in the immediate moments following every kind of imaginable crisis. I was clueless at the time as to what that really meant, and that of course was a good thing. During the training the phrase: the ministry of presence was introduced. Ministry of presence… What does that mean? This was a new phrase. Ministers after all are trained first and foremost to proclaim and teach. The ministry of presence, according to veteran crisis responders, means sitting quietly with people. It means acting like Job’s friends, as they sat with him in silence. It is not an entirely passive activity. It entails holding a person’s hand, or providing a reassuring hug. It is not an act of service that can be rushed. It may even require a significant investment of time. It requires active listening and few words.

I listened to the presenters carefully. I knew from personal experience that poorly chosen words directed to a person in acute grief are extremely damaging. But I was still skeptical… I am a fixer. How can this ministry of presence, as they call it, do anything to help a person who is in shock over the loss of a loved one? Wouldn’t it be better to do something on their behalf? Even though I was skeptical, I followed the counsel that was provided during that training event in 1990, and did my best to be the ministry of presence for the people I was called to serve. I was still not satisfied. After each crisis event, I walked away feeling that I had not done enough.

I suppose you can call me a slow learner, because it has taken me 18 years to realize that the ministry of presence is powerful, and amazingly healing. I am no longer skeptical.

The Loaves and Fish...

I was working on a sermon early this morning…the text: Matthew 9:35-40.

35Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."

I worked on a power point presentation to accompany the sermon that reflects images of both crowds and individual people. The thesis of the sermon: Crowds of people don’t touch our hearts until we recognize that the group is made up of individuals with unique needs.

And then I drove to Plano to see an 18 year old who underwent surgery for a brain tumor 2 weeks ago today.

I commented to his dad how kind hundreds of people had been to them. People from church, and people from work, and strangers…

And then his dad shared a story with me that I can’t get out of my mind… It seems they were in the CCU waiting room not long after Jerrod’s surgery. Jerrod’s dad works for United Grocery Stores in Lubbock. United made arrangements to have a meal sent up to the CCU waiting room for the family…a group numbering about 20.

There was another family in the waiting room that evening….A family who just received the news that their son had died from a brain aneurism. A family who was obviously lacking in financial resources… A family that was not surrounded by church friends, or being supported by a minister… So Jerrod’s family approached the grieving family, and said, please let us share our food with you…Jerrod’s family knew that United had only planned for 20, and not for 40, so they figured they could easily order out for pizza later.
They just knew it was a time to share. It was the story of the five loaves and two fish repeated. There was plenty of food for everyone, but most importantly, it was a moment of compassion. The strangers in the waiting room were no longer strangers. They were real people with real needs. I was not there for the event, but as I drove back to Granbury from Plano, images of shared sandwiches, shared tears, and hearts full of love flooded my mind.

I Got to Hold a Baby Today

(Note: This series of ministry events began unfolding on a Friday morning, around 11:30, and were completed around 11:30 the evening of the same day.)I got to hold a baby today…you know it is one of those things that preachers get to do… We go to the hospital to pray for the newborn. We go and pray with the parents at such a joyful time. And sometimes, we enjoy the fringe benefit of holding God’s new and precious gift.I got to hold a baby today…While I was rocking a little boy who was only hours old in my arms, another mother of a newborn from my church was sobbing quietly down the hall. Her baby was about to be transported to the nearby children’s hospital. We are not sure what is wrong, says the pediatrician….I prayed with that family too.I got to hold a baby today…And only hours after enjoying that ultimate fringe benefit of ministry, I was at the bedside, or should I say cribside of the little guy who was taken to the children’s hospital. I was only one there since his mother had not been dismissed from the hospital where he was born. Hold his pacifier in his mouth, the nurse says. He won’t be able to eat for a few days, only iv fluids for now… Can he feel hunger, I ask? Oh yes, he feels hunger! But only iv fluids for now.We are not sure what is wrong, says the neonatologist…I got to hold a baby today…While I held the pacifier with great diligence, another couple’s hearts were breaking in a nearby NICU cubicle. I am sorry, she didn’t make it, says the neonatologist… They called the hospital chaplain. He gently led them through the next mind boggling, emotionally wrenching minutes of their life. I walked around the corner of the waiting room to give them so privacy, so he could gather their family for a group prayer. And later I happened to follow them to the parking garage. They were empty handed, except for a video camera, that captured the last few minutes of joy that they will experience for some time. They got in their car, and drove off…. I drove off in mine. We went our separate ways forever, but for a few moments, unbeknownst to each other, we shared some tears together. I got to hold a baby today…My little friend in the hospital has been dismissed. They know what was wrong now! He can feel hunger, and he can sense satisfaction from eating now…He stared me down with the most beautiful eyes.I got hold a baby today….Only hours before I held that pacifier in his mouth, I had to intrude on the privacy of a perfect stranger. She is 79 years old…I was given the grim duty by the Sheriff’s department of telling her that her 47 year old son had taken his own life. She was doing everything she could to help him get on his feet, she said. I wondered what was wrong, as she reflected on his 47 years…I wondered how it must feel to lose one whom you took home from the hospital so many years ago. I wonder if the preacher held him, and prayed for him, before he went home.I got to hold a baby today.You know it is one those things that preachers get to do…

The Baptism

She is a very quiet girl.... She is one of at least a dozen middle school age girls in the Sunday school class I teach every week. They are all sweet... This particulary young lady is precious. She is always attentive and quick to smile, but very reserved. She came up to me after class, and asked me if I would be present for her baptism this afternoon at 3:30. I told her: Of course I will be there.As her father prepared to ask for her confession of faith, he asked if any among the small band of people gathered would like to make a comment. A Sunday school teacher who had taught her when she was in elementary school complimented her obvoius interest in spiritual things at that stage in her life. Her "adopted" Grandmother from church reinforced her love for her that had already been expressed in weekly letters sent to our baptismal candidate. The youth minister reflected on the time he had spent in the family home. And I gloatingly told the group that I had the disntinct privilege of having her in class right now.Her mother cried, her younger sister cried, and her dad tried real hard not to cry... I just sat and soaked up what I think is one of the most moving experiences I have ever had during a baptism.The tears of joy running down this sweet young ladies face were evidence to me of a true heartfelt conversion.I am glad I am a minister. We sit on the 50 yard line during the most signficant events in the lives of those we are privileged to serve. How could I be more blessed?

Honoring the Memory of one of Our Finest...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Honoring the Memory of our Finest
On September 18th, I joined several police officers from Granbury at the funeral for a brother in Christ in Odessa, TX. Abel Marquez, a police officer for the Odessa Police Dept, was gunned down as he tried to render aid to two of his officers. His fellow officers were shot and killed by the same perpetrator during a domestic violence call at a home in West Odessa. Those two officers died at the scene. Officer Marquez passed away at a Lubbock hospital 5 days later. The past weeks for the citizens of Odessa have overwhelmingly painful. Here is an essay I composed when I returned from the funeral.Over 2100 mourners gathered to grieve with the Marquez family at a downtown church in Odessa. Over 30 police agencies sent officers to pay respects with places as far away as Houston, Galveston, and Presidio, TX. There was a sea of blue uniforms. It was one of those rare occasions where I actually felt out of place in a pin striped suit and red tie. I instantly felt at home as singers from the Golf Course Road Church of Christ stood up to sing Amazing Grace and a beautiful musical arrangement of the 23rd Psalm. The officers sitting near me were visibly moved by the beauty of the music. I was so thankful for the kind brothers and sisters in Christ from Midland who gave up an entire day to comfort those attending the service. Accappella music never sounded better. I was thankful to be a part of the fellowship we enjoy in Christ. People who know what a ministry of mercy is all about…An elder from one of the local churches eulogized the fallen officer. He had known 32 year old Marquez since the officer was a young boy. The brother in Christ talked about their common interest in riding mountain bikes. It was on one of their biking ventures that this good brother conducting the eulogy shared the Gospel from a pocket New Testament he always carried with him. I left the church building saddened by the awful loss caused by such a horrible act of violence. But I also left inspired to try harder to reach out to people. God has given me ample opportunity to reach out to these men and women who are servants of God, called to protect and serve. I wondered to myself if I am faithful to my calling, as I looked over the endless line of police cars that surrounded the church building that afternoon.We finally ventured out into the procession, with hundreds of other police units from around the state. I was not prepared for what I was about to see…The city of Odessa had come to a screeching halt. Citizens lined downtown streets and the highway to the cemetery. Many were holding American flags. It appeared that every employee from a local car dealership stopped what they were doing to stand on the highway out of respect. I saw one lady on the side of the road overwhelmed with emotion, as she watched the men and women in blue from the various agencies slowly make their way to the cemetery. I was especially touched by a couple of children who appeared to be about 8 year’s old holding posters they had obviously made themselves which read: “Odessa Christian School is praying for OPD.” In a world where respect seems to be waning with the passing of each day, I found my heart filled with hope. Rosa’s CafĂ© in Odessa generously served all of the local and visiting officers a free meal, as we prepared to head back to Granbury. I sought out my preaching colleague and fellow police chaplain, Roy Jones before I left. I hugged him and expressed my love for him, and members of his department. Roy has been a great example of Christ’s love to his department during this entire ordeal.Practicing the presence of Christ was the essence of a new mission statement for me on Sunday, September 16th. I don’t want to be misunderstood. I believed in the validity of the statement. But by afternoon of September 18th, the phrase became a point of heart conviction. The events of the day reminded me of the darkness of the violent world, which we are called to serve. The calling to serve that world was reaffirmed. I was further moved to minister to impressionable and innocent children who will hold signs of support for their local heroes. It was a day of renewal as well as conviction. Practicing the Presence of Christ…what will it mean for you