Ministry and the Law
Editor’s Note: Orange County Catholic was recently honored with two Catholic Press Awards. The following story, published in the July 2012 issue, won a third place award for Best Feature Writing among newspapers of its size.
A man was perched on the McFadden bridge over SR55, threatening to jump.
Tustin police had closed McFadden to traffic, and the California Highway Patrol had closed the freeway. Traffic was backing up, and the suicidal man was not responding to anyone who tried to address him. Then the police said something that did get through to him.
“Father wants to talk.”
The man on the bridge looked around for the priest and spotted him—Father Chris Heath, a chaplain with the Tustin Police Department.
Then a parochial vicar at St. Cecilia, Father Heath—who is currently serving at St. Edward in Dana Point—recalls feeling uncertain about how to proceed. But that was no problem: he had the police backing him up, “feeding” him lines to say to the man.
“When he [the officer] saw I was starting to get the hang of it, he backed off, and I didn’t know he was gone,” Father Heath recalls with a laugh. “He left me there all alone with this guy.”
But the priest really had gotten the hang of it, and his words reached the man. Instead of jumping down onto the freeway, he climbed off the fence to safety.
Priests deal with life and death every day—though it’s not every day that they’re called to talk a would-be jumper off a freeway overpass. But for chaplains who work with law enforcement, it can be all in a day’s work.
Across the Diocese of Orange, priests and religious work as chaplains for various law enforcement agencies—and in each case, the chaplaincy takes a unique form. Father Heath—who is also a chaplain for the Orange County Sheriff Department and the Santa Ana field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—has experienced various types of chaplaincy work. When he lived in Tustin, he often went with police when they got a call about an accident or a death; with the FBI, his chaplaincy is more a matter of presence for the agents, and of being available in case of bigger events.
“I’m not doing hands-on law enforcement stuff,” he says. “I am … on call if bad things happen.”
Sister Joan Cunningham, CSJ, has been a chaplain with the Orange Police Department for 12 years (though she did attempt to resign when she turned 90. “Just forget it,” the police chief told the Sister of St. Joseph of Orange. “Your presence is important.”).
She and two other chaplains are on call to the department when they’re needed—usually when there’s a major accident or a death. Once she and an officer knelt down in the street to pray for an injured woman who was lying there. “During the night, they’ll come by and get me,” she says. “I have a uniform and a badge—the whole works.”
A registered nurse, Sister Cunningham often hears about officers’ health challenges. “They trust me with their physical health, and their emotional health,” she says.
Gaining that trust is a process that only begins after a potential chaplain has been thoroughly screened and has taken any oaths required by the position. A law enforcement department is a community, and a newcomer may not be instantly accepted. For Father Patrick Moses, a chaplain with the Cypress Police Department, getting to know as many officers as possible—as deeply as possible—has made all the difference. That’s no surprise to him, though. After all, says the St. Irenaeus pastor, “My relationship with God changed when it became personal.”
Just knowing the officers’ names is not enough. His goal is to go on a ride-along with each officer; since being sworn in about 15 months ago, he’s made it through more than half the department. Night-time ride-alongs are easier to schedule—though they can stretch to the wee hours. (Once an officer was just about to take Father Moses home when he got a call about a bank robbery in progress. The pair headed over to the bank, and the officer parked the car so the priest could see what was happening.) On the other hand, a spur-of-the-moment ride-along during the day might be only 90 minutes long.
His chaplaincy is, he quips, “full service.” He’s available to any officer who needs counseling or a listening ear; he also goes out when a resident calls in a death or there’s an accident. He’s baptized seven “police babies” since his swearing in, and will be marrying a couple later this year. The thrill of being accepted by the department is visible when he speaks about his chaplaincy work, and his respect for the department leads him to downplay his own role (something officers rarely let him get away with, he admits).
“I’ve been to family disputes, and the officers are doing a phenomenal job of counseling. They lay down the foundation for me; I do the easy lay-up and get all the credit!” he says with a grin.
“They already do the work so well; the only thing I really bring in is the title ‘chaplain.’”
“It’s amazing how one word from them, one action from them, can straighten out a life that would otherwise be lost in crime,” agrees Father Enrique Sera, a staff chaplain for the Orange County Probation Department.
The department’s chaplain program—thought to be the first probation department chaplain program in the state—is less than two years old, and is still evolving. Likewise, the responsibilities for Father Sera and the other chaplains—a Baptist minister and a Catholic deacon—have shifted somewhat. “I used to have an assigned office and regular office hours. Recently the workload has increased for them and they needed the office,” says the pastor of St. Joachim in Costa Mesa. So Father Sera has changed his hours to a “circuit-rider” style, still on call at any time, but visiting the different facilities on a rotating basis.
The chaplains maintain a presence within the Probation Department for officers and staff, assuring all of them that they are always available for any need. “The chaplain is the safety valve where they can vent their feelings and discuss any issue that they may not want to bring to their home pastor,” he says .
Father Sera was familiar with the law enforcement world (he has cousins who are police officers), but the Probation Department was a new facet of that world. He is awed by the professionalism and care shown by department staff to people assigned to them. “They’re really unsung heroes,” says Father Sera, describing probation officers as a combination of law enforcement, social workers, and teachers.
For parish priests, chaplaincy work can be a refreshing break from the rigors of parish life—giving them a fresh perspective on their priestly vocations, allowing them to use different skills, and putting them in contact with a group of people whose skills and talents spark deep admiration in the chaplains themselves.
“They’ve given me a lot more than I’ll ever give them,” says Father Moses thoughtfully, before breaking into a grin. “They won’t give me a gun, though,” he jokes. “But once in a while, they’ll take me to the shooting range.”
PHOTO Cypress Police chief Mark Yokoyama (right) administers the oath of allegiance to the United States and its Constitution and laws to Father Patrick Moses, pastor of St. Irenaeus Catholic Church. Father Moses was appointed as a volunteer chaplain for Cypress Police Department on Feb. 22, 2011. Photo by Edna Ethington.