Monday, July 27, 2015

Law Enforcement and Racial Tensions: The Chaplain's Perspective

Law enforcement in America is under severe scrutiny. Simmering racial tensions between police and the citizens they are called to protect and serve have reached a boiling point in communities across America.  At the urging of a good friend and colleague, I am going to comment on such tensions.  My perspective is rather unique. I have been a law enforcement chaplain for over 25 years.  In that role, I am called to provide pastoral care both to officers and victims of crimes or other traumatic occurrences.  I have spent hundreds of hours riding with officers on patrol during their shift at all hours of the day and night since 1990.  What can I add to this dialogue? I am going to list a few things that I hope will prove to be helpful.

·       Are you well qualified?  When I was an undergraduate student, I worked for a gentleman that would ask me if I was “well qualified to discuss” a particular subject.  In the wake of events in Ferguson several months ago, I was literally stunned at the ill-informed comments being shared on social media. Ignorance appeared to be widespread. Individuals posted thoughts that on the surface sounded good, but in reality were not based on fact.  Such postings fuel the divide that exists between law enforcement and citizens.  Don’t post about a controversial event if you really don’t know what you are talking about. Your ignorance is destructive.

·       Will you admit your biases? I am biased. I readily admit it. I have worked with hundreds of well-trained, highly professional police officers for a long time. I have grown to love these men and women that have answered the call to protect and serve. But I also know my biases get me in trouble. I asked a veteran police officer what his thoughts were regarding events in Ferguson not long after the death of Michael Brown.  His response was not what I expected.  He said: “I really don’t know. I wasn’t there.”  I expected him to stand up quickly for a fellow officer.  But he told me that he didn’t have enough information regarding what actually occurred to form an intelligent opinion. This guy bleeds blue.  He is the consummate professional. He is loyal to his fellow officers in ways most people have an inability to comprehend.  He forced me to examine my own biases. He encouraged objectivity and fairness by his example.  I would urge everyone involved in this dialogue to do likewise.  Biases are destructive.

·       Are you an expert in police training?  I have a friend who is an engineer at NASA.  I have no clue what his role actually entails. But I thoroughly enjoy hearing about his job and absorbing what I am able. I don’t give my opinion on matters of which I know nothing about.  Be cautious about making rash statements about a police officer’s role until you have done good research.  Befriend an officer. Ask intelligent questions about his job.  Ask her about her role in the department. Inquire about training and standard order of procedure.  If your community allows citizens to do a ride-a-long, by all means take advantage of the opportunity. It will change your perspective dramatically. If you are not an expert in police training, refrain from armchair quarterbacking.

·       Can a video tell the entire Story?  Police officers work under a constant microscope. Dash-cams and now body-cams for some departments are constantly reviewed by police supervisors. They can be helpful in prosecuting certain crimes.  They can also reveal police misconduct.  But there are still some inherent pitfalls.  The NFL is figuring out that reviewing football plays via video is helpful, but not without issues.  Two things stand out regarding video.  The media often releases a couple of minutes from a police video that is commonly much longer. The entire story is seldom told by showing a fraction of the actual footage. The story is most often completed by eye-witness accounts and other forms of evidence that complement what is revealed by a video.  Don’t draw conclusions without sufficient evidence.

·       Are the police Infallible?  I have strong biases, but I as a minister I am also a reasonably good student of human nature.  Police officers make mistakes. Officers make grievous mistakes that often end up ending their career.  And when they do fail, it frequently affects a lot of lives. Another officer’s safety is compromised. Citizens are not served well.  People get hurt. Lives are even lost.  I have served departments over the years that do an exceptional job addressing internal issues. But I know that is not the case everywhere. I am a strong proponent of meaningful accountability that is enforced by individuals of integrity. Such a commitment is imperative during such a time as this.

·       Can racial bridges be built?  Racial bridges are going to have to be constructed.  Racial tensions are destroying any hint of trust that existed between minority citizens and the police. Negative and biased rhetoric is pouring gasoline on that fire.  The times call for non-anxious and objective voices from all sides of this issue.  All of us (including chaplains) are going to have to move beyond the realm of our relational comfort zone and contribute to the construction of relational bridges that will lead to the safety and well-being of officers and citizens alike. Police training has actually improved in this area substantially over the years.

I realize there are a lot of other things I could share here.  I just wish the average citizen could be exposed to the acts of kindness, heroism, and protection I have seen officers provide.  The words of a dear friend who lost his precious daughter in a car crash are ringing in my head.  He said: “Before my daughter was killed I understood the “protect part” of “protect and serve.”  After my daughter’s death, I now have an appreciation for the “serve” part.   I would write more, but I am thinking in terms of how we can build bridges that have been blown up by the bad behavior of a few. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Consequences of Having Your Heart Ripped Out!

My heart has been ripped right of my body this week.  It has been taken out by force, placed on a hard surface and stomped on.  I suppose I really should explain. I am doing my second year residency this week for my master’s degree in mental health counseling.  (I know…what kind of nutcase goes back to school at age 51.)   But here I am taking a course this summer in counseling children and adolescents. The written coursework was great.  We learned how to apply the various theories of counseling in our work with younger clients. I wrote up a storm for this class. I can apply those theories in a word document like you can’t imagine.

But little did I know that the professor for this course is one of the most gifted counselors for children I have ever encountered?  She is highly competent.  And her passion for serving children inspires me in ways I cannot possibly express.  But there are dangers in taking a course like this from such a gifted professor!  She has chosen to drag us to into her world. And the consequences may never be reversed.

We have spent our afternoons this week at a residential care facility for children who have been neglected and abused.  Each student has been assigned one child to work with for the week.  My child is a little 8 year boy, who came from a horrendous home situation, prior to being placed at the facility where we are serving.  
Each day I get to hear about the interactions my fellow students are having with the children that been assigned to them for the week.  And each day my heart breaks a little more.  The things these precious children have seen….The emotions they are carrying… The void of basic care that has gone in their young lives. Children that have been forced to stay in hot garages. Children that had no clue when they would get to eat again.  I heard some stories today that finally sent me completely over the edge.  My heart literally broke. I didn’t know whether I wanted to hit someone or weep.  And then the words of another wise professor rang through my head…

I recall this professor telling his students in a spiritual formation class a number of years ago that we are not effective as God’s servants until our hearts have been broken. He required his students to do a ride-a-along with a police officer on the night shift for that expressed purpose.  He wanted his students to be exposed to the human condition in raw form, so their hearts might be broken…He wanted them to be servants that might make a difference in a broken world.

Dr. Robinson has exposed us to her counseling world.  A world where children experience unspeakable trauma.  And she has shared her own heart with us along the way. It would be so much easier to stick to the theories and the books that explain such ideas. Life would be a lot simpler if we just functioned in our little neat and tidy theoretical world. My heart would still be intact.  But if the truth be known, I want to make a difference.  At age 53, it’s time for my heart be broken in ways it never has been before. I really do want an effective servant, so I am grateful to Dr. Robinson for dragging me into her world.  The consequences will indeed never be reversed. And for that I am thankful.  

Friday, July 17, 2015

Playing Golf with a Marine: It's Dangerous Business

Reading the newspaper is dangerous business.  There is no telling how a particular article may impact your life.  Last week I played in a golf tournament with a marine. He is not an active duty marine, but years ago it was pointed out me that there is no such thing as a “former marine.”  During our golf round he shared a story that continues to impact me.

He got up one morning and read the newspaper.  That’s not an unusual routine for those of us that spent decades reading our news in printed version long before there were online sources for such material. The news that day included a story about a young marine that was killed in battle.  The story affected him deeply.
The death of this young man could not be erased from his heart, so he decided to do something. He sought out a place in the Marine Corps Marathon that is held annually in Washington D.C. Securing a spot in that race is apparently no simple task.  But he persevered and managed to navigate his way through a variety of obstacles. Ultimately, a place was secured in the marathon. 

The hard part then followed.  It was time to start training for a marathon!  Most people start training in an effort to get fit or to lose weight. In other cases, people start running for social reasons. They have running partners that they want to run 5K’s with.  Those are certainly legitimate reasons to work out.  But Van’s motivation for becoming more physically fit was far different.  Little did he know….He was about to make a difference in someone’s life.

He began communicating with the young marine’s father.  He explained the intent to run the marathon in memory of the man’s son. As you can well imagine, the marine’s father was deeply touched by this extraordinary act of compassion.  My friend would travel from his home state of Wisconsin all the way to Washington D.C. to honor the service of a fellow marine.

The big day finally rolled around.  My friend completed the race.  His objective was met. But the story is not over.  After the marathon, the marine’s father traveled from his home to meet this stranger that had been motivated to honor his son after reading a newspaper article.  During their interchange the father gave his new found friend something very special to commemorate the marathon that year.  It was the last gift the father had given his son.  There was no one else on the face of the earth that he wanted to have that gift more than the man that ran in memory of his son.

My golf round suffered substantially after hearing this story.  How could I think about staying in the fairway, when my mind was consumed with a young marine and his grieving father?  I couldn’t help but ask my friend this question: “Are you and the marine’s father still in contact with each other?”  He said:  Well of course, we are as close as brothers.”   I wept inside. How could I not be deeply moved?


I am having crazy thoughts these days.  I am thinking about the need to be fit.  But it’s not about weight loss or socializing… I want to get fit, because perhaps I could make a difference in someone's life too. .Reading the newspaper is dangerous business and so is playing golf with people that change your life.  I am grateful that I got to play golf with a marine. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Reflections on a 35 Year High School Reunion

It was an annual tradition at Wind Point Elementary School.   A photographer would set up in the school hallway to take individual pictures of each student.   They even provided combs for Dennis the Menace types such as myself.  As part of their services, they assembled a class picture featuring every student in that particular teacher’s room.   


Last night at the 35 year Horlick High School Reunion some of those class pictures from at least two elementary campuses were floating around the room. As these group photos that dated back to prehistoric 1968 were being examined, I expected commentary about hairstyles or a change in a particular person’s appearance.  That was not the case.  At all.  I heard expressions of affection.  There was a genuine longing to reconnect with classmates that have dropped off the radar screen.  It felt like we had rediscovered a piece of priceless artwork that had been tucked away in a dark closet for decades.  Perhaps that was a pretty accurate perception….


I know that the first 5 years are technically deemed the formative years for a child.  In my mind, the formative years include our entire elementary school experience.  After all, it is during that time period that children learn to read, write, and do basic math.   It’s also a time of learning how to socialize.  Friendships are forged for the first time in a child’s life.  The playground becomes a place to learn conflict resolution skills.  Learning to deal with each other’s differences and shortcomings teaches 2nd and 3rd graders tolerance and compassion.  And a handful of memories are etched on our hearts forever.


As we went through the routine of having pictures made every year, we had no clue that a priceless portrait was being assembled.  One year at a time… Every year another part of the portrait was completed.  By the time 6th grade rolled around, that era in our lives ended.  The completed portrait comprised of annual pictures taken in 1st-6th grade was finished and promptly placed in a box in that dark closet.


Last night we quietly dusted off the completed masterpiece.  Perhaps there was a reason for the void of cracks about hairstyles or changing appearances.  As we looked at the pictures for each year, we intuitively recognized that our classmates contributed to our formative years.  Our classmates had a part in the process of us becoming real adults.  Those friends contributed to our sense of wholeness.


It has been a long time since prehistoric 1968.  The adults that gathered last night for a 35 year high school reunion have all experienced various types of brokenness generated from living a real life.  But as we looked at the priceless portrait that is comprised of annual class photos, I think we felt a  renewed sense of wholeness.   How could that not happen when you are with the very people that traveled with you through the formative years?

I know I was blessed.  I moved away after the 7th grade, but the formative experience remained. I will be forever grateful for those that walked with me during that time period.   In a broken world, may we contribute constructively to one another’s wholeness.   Thank you Horlick Class of 1980.  Each of you are a blessing.