MOUNT VERNON — Far too few can imagine, much less understand, the stress first responders experience as they fulfill their role as public servants.
Daily they embody valor and bravery, but the prolonged exposure to stress takes a toll. Nightmares, guilt and anxiety, relationship issues, depression, and food, alcohol or substance abuse are a few of the reactions stemming from the constant pressure.
A group of local chaplains seeks to reduce these adverse effects by providing mental, emotional, and spiritual support to those involved in stressful or traumatic events. That support is not restricted to after the fact. Chaplains will also respond along with the first responders during a critical incident.
Mount Vernon Association of Police Chaplains (MVAPC)
The idea of a Mount Vernon Association of Police Chaplains (MVAPC) was in the minds of Sgt. Andy Burns, Mount Vernon Police Department, and LJ Harry, pastor of Apostolic Christian Church, for several years. It did not, however, gain traction with MVPD administration.
“We knew there was a need, but we were better able to articulate the need once we were trained and in place,” said Burns.
The catalyst was the fatal shooting of two Westerville police officers in February 2018.
“That really got the attention of administration,” said Burns. “From a faith-based perspective, I realized that God's timing is different from ours.”
Burns said that he noticed during the funeral services for the Westerville officers the effect that Chaplain Jim Meacham — founder of the police chaplain program for the Westerville Police Department — had on those attending, even those who had never met him.
“I realized that Mount Vernon was ready for a chaplaincy,” he said.
With the backing of MVPD Capt. Scott McKnight, who said “I will take the heat,” the chaplain corps became a reality in April 2018. Six chaplains underwent training and credentialing through the International Alliance of Chaplain Corps (IAOCC).
“Our first call-out was just about the worst type,” said Burns. “It was the death of an infant. We had literally been activated only a few weeks before. It was a trial by fire.”
The six chaplains rotate weekly as the first on-call chaplain. Initially designed to provide support to the police officers, the chaplains realized that 911 dispatchers frequently felt disconnected and isolated after handling calls but not knowing the outcome.
“It can be traumatizing,” said Burns. “Imagine if you're the last voice that person [calling] heard. They wonder 'Did I say the right thing?' They often don't know the outcome. Now our directive sends a chaplain down to dispatch. We needed to make sure this [support] was all-inclusive, not just for the officers.”
As the program developed, the chaplains also realized that spouses needed support as well as the officers and dispatchers. The Half-Units, headed by Burns' wife, was formed. During a spouse retreat, which included spouses of firefighters and EMTs, they discovered they all face the same problems.
The corps expanded, adding two fire chaplains and two female chaplains.
“We realized we needed to serve all first responders,” explained Burns.
He said it is much more difficult when first responders actually witness an event, such as a suicide, vs. arriving on scene afterward. In some situations, several chaplains respond to minister to the officer, bystanders, and family members of the victim.
If the police chief senses a problem, Burns said he can call a chaplain and arrange for a ride-along with an officer.
“That facilitates an opportunity to talk,” he explained.
First responders can also visit the Chap House at 209 N. Mulberry St. in Mount Vernon if they want to talk with a chaplain. Walk-in hours are 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Wednesday. Appointments can be made for other days.
Burns describes the mission of the MVAPC as a “ministry of presence.”
“We serve a secular purpose,” he said. “We're strictly to be a presence, we're not out to build a congregation. But I know God can take things and rebuild broken things.”
Burns said the county commissioners and city officials have embraced the MVAPC as well as law enforcement, dispatchers, and fire personnel
“With 111 churches, it's really no surprise that it works in Knox County,” he said.
The MVAPC has, however, heard from the Freedom From Religion organization. Burns said the chaplaincy is protected, and the chaplains understand their role.
“Our chaplains will be there without judgment,” he said.
A board provides oversight to the MVAPC. Burns serves as chairman and police liaison; Chaplain Harry serves as treasurer and Capt. McKnight as secretary. Other board members include Terry Walter, vice-chairman; Chelsi Burns, Half-Units chair; Chief Chad Christopher, Mount Vernon Fire Chief; and Chaplain Phil Lohmeyer, sheriff's chaplain, fire chaplain, and quartermaster.
Although it is still evolving to meet the needs of first responders and their families, Burns said the program is working.
“I see success stories,” he said. “If we had one, it would be worth it. We have more than one.”
For more information about the Mount Vernon Association of Police Chaplains, call 740-324-5524 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Knox Community Chaplain Corps (KC3)
Whereas the MVAPC focuses primarily on first responders, the Knox Community Chaplain Corps will expand its support to include government agencies, churches and schools, motorcycle clubs, corporate and industrial entities, victims' advocates, jails, the court/probation system, and other groups.
“The county corps is in a broader sense reaching out to individuals and into communities,” explained Roger Tickle, KC3's senior chaplain and executive director. “We're trying to bring the different faith-based ministries into better connection with each other.”
For example, Tickle said, if someone needs food, shelter, or transportation, KC3 can provide food pantry access 24/7, find them shelter, or arrange transportation. The goal is to provide a more immediate response during a situation rather than merely giving the individual a phone number to call the next day.
KC3 does not yet have a chaplain corps, although 15 are signed up to take a three-day chaplaincy course later this month. Training is through the International Alliance of Chaplain Corps (IAOCC) and covers topics such as crisis intervention, grief and loss, domestic violence, depression and suicide intervention, and funeral and memorial services, among others.
“We're hoping the training will open up the door,” said Tickle. “It reaches into some really difficult issues. It helps [the chaplains] know what to say.
“We are hoping to be one of the entities that are reaching into crisis situations with abuse and drug addiction that gives people some good answers and gets them on with their life,” he added.
Tickle said that anyone needing advocacy can also visit 209 N. Mulberry St. and talk with a KC3 chaplain.
For more information about Knox Community Chaplain Corps call 740-507-5059 or email email@example.com.
International Alliance of Chaplain Corps (IAOCC)
Both the Mount Vernon Association of Police Chaplains and the Knox Community Chaplain Corps receive training under the umbrella of the International Alliance of Chaplain Corps.
Founded in 2009 by Dr. Tracy Elder, who organized the first community chaplain corps in Seneca County in 2004, the IAOCC now makes its home in Mount Vernon. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held last Friday to celebrate its new headquarters at 209 N. Mulberry St.
Originally based in Tiffin, Elder said the plan was to retire to a cabin on a hill in Kentucky. She had turned the reins over to someone else, but that individual later backed out. That, along with a series of other events, led Elder to move to Knox County, bringing the headquarters of the IAOCC with her.
“She's bringing what works here,” said MVPD Sgt. Andy Burns. “That's pretty good stuff.”
“Dr. Tracy has already done this and was very successful with it,” said Chaplain Tickle. “I've got somebody walking with me.”
Elder — who provided support at Ground Zero and Shanksville after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi, and other disasters — said the mission of the IOACC in training chaplains how to offer support and counseling to individuals is to “help to pick up the pieces of a shattered soul and put them back together.”
“We're not there to proselytize or convert. We are there to help bring them back to hope,” she said. “We understand the natural is just as important as the spiritual. Our service is natural. We bring our spiritual aspect to it.”
Chaplain training includes counseling methods, anger management, and critical incident stress management, among many other topics.
“All of those are secular, but we are able to bring the spiritual alongside,” said Elder. “We are a bridge between the world and the church. We embrace the fact that Caesar doesn't have everything wrong.”
Elder said that many of those taking IOACC training are believers who already have some form of ministry, such as a prison ministry, but have had no formal training.
“They already have a professed calling in their lives, and we give them more skill,” she explained. “We're modeling true Christian service, but you need to be equipped to give an answer to the widow and the orphan.”
Elder said that being in the chaplain corps is “not a grand pulpit ministry.” Rather, it's a “person, street, and community” ministry.
“We're every-day people trying to do what God wants us to be,” she said.
IOACC training is open to everyone, including those of different faiths. To be a member of the IOACC, however, the chaplain must adhere to a Christian statement of faith.
Elder said that when ministering to individuals, chaplains will facilitate all faiths.
“If they want an imam, we will get one,” she said.
The IOACC has trained chaplains internationally as well as nationwide. It has more than 500 chaplains still active in the United States.
“We think it's a testimony to what God's doing,” said Elder.
Elder typically travels to training locations. Her work is volunteer. She occasionally gets expenses paid and a salary if any money remains after expenses.
The organization also hosts sessions at its headquarters. A training session is scheduled for Mount Vernon later this month.
The MVAPC, KC3, and IOACC all will work out of the home at 209 N. Mulberry St. All three are 501(c)3 organizations.