As published in the Gannett Appleton Post Crescent – May 6, 2018
“You can’t talk about God here. It isn’t allowed,” yelled the woman across the room as I quietly prayed with a crime victim. We were in a public place. The woman I was comforting asked if I would pray for her. I’m not sure why a prayer, meant to calm a wounded soul, offended this angry outsider.
Tears subsided, emotions calmed, and the original crisis abated momentarily. I turned to the woman upset by my prayer. I explained my role as chaplain and offered my full attention to her needs. She eventually softened as she told me about her own crisis.
This scene is not uncommon. Chaplains build bridges between the sacred and secular all across our world. While often misunderstood, chaplains specialize in diversity bringing people across spiritual and emotional divides to a place of healing and unity during times of crisis.
Chaplaincy has held an honored place in our government since the Revolutionary War. George Washington himself established the Army Chaplain Corps in 1775. Today, chaplaincy is protected under the First Amendment of our Constitution and 1971 Supreme Court ruling Lemon v. Kurtzman. Under the three-prong test, chaplains do not violate separation of church and state if the chaplaincy has a secular purpose, such as crisis intervention; it does not advance or inhibit any specific religion, and is open to members of all religious beliefs; and does not foster excessive government entanglement with religion.
Chaplains work quietly — usually without pay — to help people of all faith backgrounds behind the scenes in many communities. You may recall Father Mulcahy on the television show MASH. His beloved character represented chaplaincy well. You will find chaplains ministering to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in hospitals, police stations, fire departments, accident scenes, crime scenes, nursing homes, sports teams, government agencies, natural disasters, and war zones. They can also officiate government ceremonies, weddings and funerals; deliver spiritual messages; provide counseling; and pray at public meetings upon request. Chaplains rush towards crisis and tragedy that most people would do anything to avoid. For example, NYC Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge was the
first certified fatality on Sept. 11, 2001. Grand Chute Lt. Matt Dietzler understands the need, “We are working to launch a chaplain program to serve the public and members of law enforcement through a ministry of presence in Outagamie County.”
Chaplains are not pastors, although some pastors serve as chaplains. Rather, they are neutral spiritual representatives who are trained, equipped, and ready to serve those who are experiencing trauma or crisis at a moment’s notice. The primary difference between pastors and chaplains is location. Pastors usually shepherd one local congregation, committed to a specific group or denomination. Most chaplains are Christian, but trained to work outside church walls with people across all faith backgrounds as a source of spiritual help in times of crisis.
The apostle Paul described the role of chaplains well in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Find out where chaplains are serving in your community, offer your support, and be comforted knowing they will be there if and when you face a crisis of your own.
Trish Propson is a Kaukauna resident. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.