Below is Part 7 in the 2014 Pastoral Care Week (Oct. 19-25) series here at CBFblog.
By Brian Cleveland
August in New Orleans means school and the peak of hurricane season are near. Family and neighbors were enjoying the quiet Sunday evening on the porch and in the yard of the simple Ninth Ward duplex. Suddenly gunfire erupted as a drive-by attack on a neighbor shattered the peace of the neighborhood. When it ended, a neighbor was dead and four members of the family were wounded, leaving a two year old boy with serious brain damage and a permanently blinded four year old boy.
I was not called to the scene that evening, but I knew it would be a busy week when I saw it on the news that night. I serve the New Orleans Police Department as the chaplain for the First and Fifth Districts. I have three compassionate and highly skilled colleagues who cover NOPD headquarters and the other six districts. Our employer, Baptist Community Ministries, also provides chaplains to five hospitals and three nursing homes in the New Orleans area.
At roll call the next day I learned that one of my officers was related to the victims, so I made plans to ride on patrol with him when he returned to work. These ride-alongs give ample opportunity for significant conversations, even as they are interrupted by calls for service. During another ride-along in the same district that week, another officer expressed how the shooting had affected him. As we patrolled he showed me where he lived as a child–a block where several of his relatives still resided. I listened as he vented his frustration about how the neighborhood had declined and the spread of crime that plagued that area of the city. At the end of the shift he thanked me for riding with him. I said I really didn’t do anything, but he countered, “No, Chap, you did: you listened.”
Serving as a chaplain was not even on my radar when I lived here for twenty years prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When I came to the city’s Baptist seminary, I was entirely focused was on pastoral ministry and served four churches in that regard during my two decades prior to “The Storm,” as locals call it. Three years after completing a Master of Divinity, I felt God calling me to teach. Many years later I completed the Doctor of Philosophy while teaching at William Carey University. “The Storm” and its aftermath moved me to the main campus in Hattiesburg, but New Orleans had become home and was always on my mind.
After teaching for eleven years, I resigned and returned to New Orleans. I entered the CPE program as a pastoral care resident at East Jefferson General Hospital. I served primarily in the Cardiac Care Unit and in cardiac stepdown and telemetry. Being in the CCU afforded the opportunity to work with the Supportive Care team in cases where withdrawal of care became the best option. My time in pastoral ministry had not prepared me for these experiences. But with the help of my supervisor, my colleagues, and the excellent hospital staff, I learned to walk through the experience with those who were grieving.
Still, I was not prepared for what I would see in the streets of the Big Easy. The first time I arrived at a homicide crime scene, even two of the police officers present were visibly disturbed by what they saw. I later learned it was their first homicide as well. The young man’s body was lying in the street, shielded from the onlooker’s view by large opaque panels. From thirty feet away I could see several bullet wounds and his blood draining towards the curb. After talking to the shaken officers, I talked with the most distraught people standing at the crime scene tape. They were not sure who the victim was, but they feared it was a relative. While I could not provide any information to them, I tried to give them pastoral conversation and a compassionate presence.
Walking through the grief process with families is still an all too frequent aspect of my job. I had slept in on Labor Day, anticipating a relaxing day at home, when I was awakened by a phone call. An officer informed me her great-aunt had died and asked if I could come to the hospital to pray with the family. I went to the hospital and, together with her family, we spent the next few hours praying, reminiscing, crying and laughing. As we walked out of the hospital, they invited me to eat lunch with the family. I was happy to do so, and thankful that I could be their chaplain and make a difference in their lives.
I try to focus on more than the individual officer. He or she is part of a natural family with all the usual struggles families face: aging parents, marital problems, custody battles and chronic illnesses. They are also part of the family of law enforcement officers–a group with its own set of dynamics and responsibilities. In the end, I have adapted my pastoral care philosophy from my early ministry to this new setting. My primary focus is my police officers, as if they were the members of my church. The members of the public with whom I have contact are like the guests who visit on Sunday morning. If I take care of my “member” officers and help keep them healthy, they will be better equipped to “minister” to the public in their interactions.
Last Sunday an officer working a guard detail at a restaurant was shot multiple times. Many members of the law enforcement family gathered at the hospital, and together we stood vigil and prayed until we could visit the wounded officer. When we learned he was out of danger and in stable condition, the relief in the room and hallway was almost palpable. The family in blue went back to work to find those responsible, and to serve and protect the public.
I am thankful that I can care for them, because they show there definitely is caring in “the City that Care Forgot.”