Volunteer Fire Chaplaincy: a Growing Ministry, a 'Second Congregation'
Some numbers become such a part of our national experience that they become deeply engrained in our societal memory, sticking with us, perhaps forever. Numbers like 9-11. Numbers like 343. All of us know what happened in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
Most of us are aware that 343 New York Fire Department personnel lost their lives trying to save others at the World Trade Center. But few of us realize that the very first FDNY member who lost his life that fateful day was not a firefighter or a paramedic at all; it was the beloved New York Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge.
When the call came in that fateful morning, Father Judge donned his protective fire bunker gear and rushed to the scene, where Mayor Rudy Giuliani himself asked him to pray for the injured and for all the first responders, which he did up to the moment of his death. He was killed by flying debris from the collapsing south tower as he stood in the north tower lobby command post, his last reported words being, “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”
Most of us are aware that virtually all of the larger cities in our country have full-time chaplains, but since 9-11, fire departments all over our nation, from smallest to largest, rural to urban, volunteer and paid, have seen the need to have someone walk alongside them as a supportive spiritual presence, and have been seeking out people like Father Judge to be their department chaplains.
Here in Illinois, particularly within the confines of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, that movement is small, but growing, and many pastors – including many United Methodists – have heard the call and said yes, and now count the men and women of their respective departments as their “second congregation.”
I am one such pastor, and this is my story. But this story is not about me, really. It is the story of all of us, men and women both, who have had the privilege of being asked to be a part of what is lovingly called “The Brotherhood,” even by the female firefighters. I am humbled and honored to tell this story, just as all of us are humbled and honored to be a part of the lives of those who serve our communities in such sacrificial, and often dangerous, ways.
Who among us has not, as little children, when we saw the big red fire truck go by, lights flashing and siren blaring, thought “Someday I want to do that! Someday, when I grow up, I want to be a firefighter!”?
Like many United Methodist pastors serving their first appointments in small rural communities, I was given that opportunity and became a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician in Ransom, with the Allen Township Fire Department. That fire service continued for 17 years, beginning in Ransom, then in Arcola, and then in Dwight. Two appointments in communities with full-time, paid departments ended that opportunity to serve, but the passion never ended. Firefighters used to say “Once you get smoke in your blood, it will always be there.”
None of those departments had an “official” chaplain, but in a way they all did have an “unofficial” chaplain…me…and in those communities I had the opportunity to show God’s love in innumerable ways to those men and women who gave so much, and many of them came to know Jesus and joined the church. That was not the primary reason I was doing what I was doing, but God has a way of getting things done, often in spite of us!
Firefighting is a young person’s job and, when I was appointed here in Mahomet, even though they have one of the premier volunteer departments in the entire state, I knew I was too old to rejoin the ranks. But when the Cornbelt Fire Protection District’s board of trustees was expanded from a three-person board to a five-person board, I was asked to run for one of the new positions, which I did. And it was an honor to serve my community in that capacity for a term. The bonus for me was that I got to know a lot of the firefighters and even hang out with them!
Then it happened…a 16-year-old boy, only two weeks after getting his driver’s license, was driving his grandmother’s minivan at a high rate of speed in a wooded residential neighborhood. He missed a curve, hit a tree, and the van caught on fire. His passenger, another young man, escaped with severe burns. The driver was not so lucky; he died on the scene and his body was horribly burned in the ensuing fire.
Two of our younger firefighters were among the first on scene with the initial responding engine. Though well-trained, they were not very experienced. What they saw and what they were asked to do to assist the coroner when he arrived was profoundly disturbing to them, just as it was to all who were there.
The fire chief wisely requested the intervention of a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team (CISD), and that helped immensely. But that was the moment the department realized they needed more. They needed someone to be there for them on a regular basis; they needed a chaplain. And so they called me. They called me because they knew me, knew my firefighting history, knew that I cared about them, knew I had “smoke in my blood.” The rest is history.
Since then, in addition to my firefighting background and familiarity with and acceptance by the firefighting culture here in this department, I have received certification as an “Approved Volunteer Fire Chaplain” from the United Methodist Endorsing Agency (UMEA, the same agency that endorses military chaplains), and am engaged in training leading to national fire chaplain certification.
Why is fire chaplaincy seen as necessary, and why is the chaplaincy movement growing? I think the reason behind it was well said by one of our local police officers, who also serves as a Lieutenant on our fire department.
I was having coffee with him down at the station one Saturday morning, and asked him why he had decided to become both a professional police officer and a volunteer firefighter. His answer was something I will never forget: “I see the things I see and do the things I do so that those whom I love and care about don’t have to see or do those things.” In those words I hear the voice of Jesus, and any firefighter could have said them.
Unfortunately, many of the things volunteer firefighters see and do – like the precipitating event I described earlier, and though thank God things like that don’t happen every day – those things are not normal, and frankly, they have the potential to do serious damage to the soul, especially when kept bottled up inside. Nightmares, depression, difficulty sleeping, addictive behavior, marriage problems – all these and more can result if the soul-damaging experiences are not processed.
Like all volunteer chaplains, I make it a point to be around the fire station a lot, attending training sessions when I can, business meetings whenever possible, and serious emergency calls at every opportunity. I help them wash trucks, clean hose, and do anything I can that’s helpful and lets them know they’re appreciated. And especially, I am there for the chief, the one who bears the responsibility for the lives of 48 people. He is able to share things with me that he can’t share with anyone else. And why? Because he trusts me, and he knows that what he says to me will never go beyond the two of us…it is a holy relationship.
Like most ministry, it’s all about building relationships, getting to know these guys on a personal level, and after a particularly bad run, I will always ask someone, “How are you doing?” Inevitably, I will get the answer “I’m fine.” But you can see in their eyes that often they’re not fine. And more than once I have grabbed him or her by the shoulders, made them look me straight in the eye, and asked again, “No…how are you…really?” And often that’s when the tears start, they begin to talk, and many times this informal “counseling session” ends with a hug and a promise: “I’ll be checking on you in a few days.” And while they don’t often say so, I know it is very much appreciated. And you know you’ve made a “connection” when some guy puts his arm around you and asks, “And how are you doing today, Chaplain?”
I can’t stress it enough: volunteer fire chaplaincy is about building those kinds of relationships with the firefighters, walking through those dark and scary places with them, and letting them know that you care. Out of this special and privileged relationship they have afforded me, I have had many of them share things with me that people in the church will rarely confide to their pastor: “I’ve been cheating on my wife, and I don’t know what to do,” or “I’m at a point in my life where I feel lost, like it’s not going anywhere, and I don’t know where to turn.” I have referred people to counseling, got one back into his church and now being supported by a healthy young men’s covenant group, and many other similar things. But mostly I’ve just done one thing: listened. The thing I keep telling myself is “Listen more…talk less.”
But don’t get me wrong: there is far more joy and light than sadness and darkness, though, in this ministry. Like any American sub-culture, firefighting has its share of inside jokes, pranks, and jibes, and laughter is often the norm at the station, and the chaplain knows that he has made it inside the circle when the jokes are about him.
Firefighting has its own peculiar rites, symbols, traditions, and celebrations too, and the chaplain brings the presence of the “holy” into those experiences, often providing invocations and even keynote addresses to incoming classes of new firefighters at the end of their year-long probationary training.
Celebrations are par for the course as well. I have been privileged to officiate at several weddings of firefighters, shared the joy of a 25th wedding anniversary renewal of vows, participated in annual awards banquets, open houses, and helped the department mourn the loss of one of their own, as life and service were celebrated, and new life affirmed.
I am so grateful for this “second congregation” I am privileged to pastor. In the end, and the reason I do this specialized ministry, is summed up in the phrase I have on my chaplain business cards: “Because no matter how brave or strong we are…sometimes we all need a shoulder to lean on.”
That’s the “why” of it all, but the “how” I and others manage to do this ministry comes not from us, but from a strength beyond us. Here again are the words of Father Mychal Judge: “I, Mychal Judge, am not capable of doing these things on my own…I walk in, hold a hand, wipe a tear, say a prayer. But that’s not me, that’s the grace of God.” I and my fire chaplain colleagues couldn’t agree more!
Thank you to all you who are involved in the volunteer fire chaplain ministry! I salute you for what you do! And if you think this is something you might like to do or initiate in your community, please feel free to either contact me or go to the Illinois Corps of Fire Chaplains web site at www.ilfirechaplains.org,
where you will find a wealth of information about how to start a chaplaincy program in your area.
(Rev. Glen Bocox is a clergy member of the IGRC, serving as senior pastor of the Mahomet UMC and chaplain of the Cornbelt Fire Protection District.)