Volunteer chaplains answer a higher call through work with officers, inmates
by Jessica Loeding
Feb 10, 2013 | 3718 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In a barren room at the Bartow County Jail, Wesley Morris folds his tall frame into a low blue chair. On the table in front of him rests the Bible.

Morris sits in the small room used for attorney-inmate visits awaiting the group of four male inmates he will counsel on this particular Thursday. As acting chaplain for the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office, the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church spends several hours each week counseling and ministering to inmates.

A survey of law enforcement agencies and fire departments across the county found that all have a designated chaplain — all but one are unpaid volunteers.

“I had actually been doing a lot of work with guys who were homeless and guys that were incarcerated. Capt. [Derek] Cochran actually contacted me to see if I was interested in doing the chaplain because I worked with a lot of guys, and he had heard ... I was trying to help them more than just when they exit. A lot of guys were exiting and coming back because they had nowhere to stay,” Morris said. “So he knew that I was working on some stuff, knew some people on getting them a place to stay, helping them get through some struggles in their life. That kind of opened the door for me to help them outside, not just inside.”

For almost 30 years, chaplains for law enforcement — although Morris technically is not chaplain for BCSO personnel — were certified through the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. Beginning in June 1984, POST certified and maintained training requirements for those ministering. A POST spokeswoman said this week the agency discontinued the practice in July 2011.

Rudy Ross, a former Methodist pastor, volunteers his time as chaplain for numerous organizations, including Georgia State Patrol Troop A, Cartersville Police Department and Cartersville Medical Center. He became certified after attending a BCSO citizens law enforcement academy in 2008.

At that time, to be a chaplain for GSP, Ross had to be POST certified, submit two application packets to the state patrol, meet with an investigator and pass a polygraph.

“The sheriff here, Sheriff [Clark] Millsap, helped me get into the [Georgia] Sheriff’s Association training program. I paid my own way, but he had to sign off that I could go,” he said. “It took nearly a year to get approved because of all the things I had to check in and do. Finally, once I got the certification — well, right before I got it — I did my training.

“I rode with the state patrol for 16 hours. I went to the jail and spent four hours. I spent four hours at the communications [center] with the state patrol. There were so many hours you had to spend to be certified and then go do your 40 hours of training. Once I got all that done, then I got my certification from POST to be a POST-certified chaplain. Then things began to click.”

A higher calling

Ministers talk about being lead to the clergy, and for many chaplains, the calling is much the same.

“God put it on my heart five years ago to be a chaplain,” Morris said. “[I] didn’t really have a door there, went to Bible college and just started seeking God, and all of sudden, five years later, a door opened for me to be a chaplain. So it’s something I believe, you’ve got to have a heart for it, just a heart for people.”

Ross agreed.

“I believe it is [a calling] because ... I pastored all those years and even in that time I had done some chaplain training but, ... after I had finished pastoring my last church in 2007, I was looking for a way to minister and I had started off at Cartersville Medical Center and still do three days a month there. There’s a group of us that are volunteer chaplains. I got involved with that and then I got in law enforcement chaplain,” he said.

After his son became involved in law enforcement, Ross said he felt “impressed to do something with law enforcement,” making himself available to agencies who may need his services.

According to the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, which still certifies chaplains, the service may not be for everyone.

“It is not for every pastor or layperson, but for those who have a heart for the men and women in uniform,” the GSA website reads. “Those who are called to protect society are a closed and close-knit family. They face the evils of the world with which the public cannot identify. The chaplain’s role becomes a ministry of presence to let the sheriffs and their staff know that someone cares, someone is there for them without passing judgment, and someone is praying for them.”

What officers face each day and the toll the job takes are what led Jim Pinkard of NorthPointe Church to give his time to Adairsville Police Department.

“I was led to become a police chaplain after finding out some interesting statistics. Law enforcement officers lead the nation in three categories as far as occupations: alcoholism, divorce and suicide. After finding this out, I just wanted to help,” he said. “It’s all about the calling of God. It’s not about me or you.”

BCSO Jail Division Maj. Gary Dover said Morris has answered a need in the jail and perhaps one day can assist in other areas.

“Anything we can do, I guess, to keep [the inmates] calm and try to help them with stuff like that [is beneficial] because, you know, when they’re in here and some of their family members die or whatnot, we’re not really equipped as officers to go in there and counsel them on that level,” he said. “We really need someone to do that. That’s where they step in. It’s really important, in my opinion.

“Hopefully, one day, it may work into [serving as chaplain for personnel] because a lot of times he does stop and speak to the people in booking and holding, they see him around. ... Me and him were talking one day — it’s real easy for us seeing what we see every day to get really hard-hearted a lot of times with people and stuff like that. Depression is very prevalent in our business, so is suicide in our business.”

Chaplains not only provide spiritual support but oftentimes are called on to perform other duties, like death notifications, post-traumatic stress counseling, post-shooting counseling and memorials.

Ross, who spends most of his time at CPD, said being there for officers in their time of need may be his most important role.

“I think the biggest thing is just making sure they have somebody to talk to when they’re going through a difficult time, whether it’s a scene they’ve gone to with a wreck or if it’s some family situation they’ve had to deal with on the job and even if there is something going on with them, just situations they are having to face that they can come and talk to me, if they want to,” he said.

Encountering issues

The same reasons public safety personnel need the counseling and ministery of a chaplain also can present roadblocks to those there to help.

“The hardest part of being a chaplain is gaining the officer’s trust because, after seeing the worst in humanity, they don’t hardly trust anyone,” Pinkard said.

Although death notifications are difficult, Ross said some of the situations he encounters is the toughest aspect of serving as chaplain.

“I just see it being somebody that can be there for them, but that’s important. If they’re going through stressful situations and they’re just keeping it bottled in, that can be physically difficult for them and can be emotionally and can be distracting to them,” he said. “... I think it does help them if they’re going through a difficult time they need someone to share so it’s not interrupting what’s going on on the job.”

For Morris, ministering to inmates presents a different set of challenges.

“The biggest need I see in all people is Jesus. Without Christ you can only go so far ... You’ll never be totally free, you’ll always be in bondage,” he said. “Another big need I see in their life is just a second chance. They need someone to put some faith in them, lead them, grab them by the hand and walk with them through the circumstances in their life, help them overcome, become more confident in who they are and who God’s created them to be.

“God’s created them to work, and if they’re not working and they’re not doing what they are designed to do, so it’s getting them back to work but overcoming the roadblocks in their life to get them back ... building their confidence and overcoming their past. They made a decision at one point in time and that doesn’t have to be the rest of their life. They can learn from their decisions, through consequences, make good decisions going forward.”

The struggles and strife he sees and hears in the austere room of the jail impact Morris as a counselor.

“A man’s got to make a decision. A woman’s got to make a decision. I can’t make a decision for them, so in that, I wish I could because I would ...,” Morris said. “Sometimes you can equip a man with all the tools he needs but he’s still got to make a choice at the end of the day. The hardest part is just seeing guys and women stuck in a cycle that they may or may not could have been born into, but there’s a way out.

“Sometimes it’s painful to see people suffering because ... there’s always a story behind every picture. Sometimes once you know the story you have a lot more compassion for an individual once you hear the real story.”

Reaping the reward

Despite the obstacles, local chaplains all say the reward comes at the end — when someone has been reached.

In Adairsville, Pinkard said the payoff comes when he feels the officers opening up.

“The most rewarding part is gaining their trust and becoming part of their family,” he said, adding that he sees a need for the community to get support local police.

Ross, who also serves Emerson Police Department and the Georgia State Defense Force First Battalion, said he will often spend one-on-one time with troopers and officers, and he remains on call should he be needed.

“I enjoy it, being able to be around the officers and talk with them. I ride with them, try to get to know them. It helps out if they get to know you, just the relationship you can develop,” he said. “They can come and talk to me if they need to. I am under the confidentiality if they want to come and talk to me about something they can come and talk to me and I’m not going to go and tell everybody.”

The former pastor said serving public safety is very similar to his former duties serving a congregation.

“I think the most rewarding [aspect] is when someone has got something that’s going on and you can be able to talk with them and it seems like it encourages them. They’re, you know, feel like you know somebody’s willing to listen to what’s going on with them,” he said. “To me, ... it’s the same way in pastoring a church, you’re pastoring a different group of people. You be there and listen to them and encourage them and support them.”

Those interested in becoming a certified chaplain should contact the Georgia Sheriff’s Association at 770-914-1076 or visit http://www.georgiasheriffs.org.