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Chaplains provide comfort in times of crisis

The Rev. Rolf Olson knows what it's like to be on both sides of a crisis when the police are called.

Last spring the Cottage Grove resident, and pastor of Richfield Lutheran Church, got a page on his cell phone to report to the Woodbury Public Safety Department. A shooting involving a resident and a patrol officer had just taken place. It was just after midnight and Olson was the police chaplain on call that week for the department as part of the East Suburban Chaplaincy Corps, which was created in 1994 to serve Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Oakdale and St. Paul Park police.

Olson spent the early morning hours of April 16 with police officers at the public safety building awaiting word of when he would be needed at the scene.

"I was supportive to the police as best as I could be," Olson said, "but my role that night really kicked in with the family later."

It's typical, Olson said, for pastors in the chaplaincy corps to offer assistance to families mourning in the immediacy of serious injury or death of a relative. Many times families utilize the chaplains called to the scene by police. Olson acknowledged his family has leaned on the support of police chaplains when his own daughter was murdered in October of 2007.

"Because I was a police chaplain myself, I knew how incredibly helpful it could be to have that support," Olson said. "I was stunned to experience that for myself after I have helped people go through it as a chaplain."

Helping hand

in tough times

Olson is currently one of three area pastors working for the East Suburban Chaplaincy Corps, which is part of a joint powers agreement signed by the police chiefs from each city. Former Woodbury Police Chief Greg Orth helped institute the corps.

The pastors take turns serving on call for one week at a time. They often provide support to the community and to public safety staff. The corps recently filled a vacancy made by the departure earlier this summer of longtime police chaplain Jack Nicklay, a deacon at St. Rita's Catholic Church in Cottage Grove.

Many at the Woodbury Public Safety Department, including firefighter Mike Richardson, said Nicklay's 15 years of service to the chaplaincy corps made a positive impact on the community.

"Jack helped us get through some tough times over the years," said Richardson, assistant fire chief in Woodbury. One of those times, Richardson recalled, included a 2005 house fire that killed three residents. The incident was traumatic for relatives of the deceased and for many of the firefighters at the scene, Richardson said.

"Jack was there for us when we needed him, and when families experiencing tragedy needed him," Richardson said, who added that Nicklay often participated in ride-alongs with firefighters and police officers to get to know them better outside of emergency situations.

"He took his job seriously," Richardson said. "If he was going to make an impact, he really wanted to get to know us."

That's an approach that works well with public safety officers, but not always in the midst of a public safety emergency, said Nils Friberg, a retired pastor and police chaplain who provides seminars for chaplain corps around the Twin Cities. Friberg recently held a seminar for the East Suburban Chaplaincy Corps at the Woodbury Public Safety Building.

"When you're in those situations, it's important for the chaplain to make themselves available to, but not push on the families," said Friberg, who served as a police chaplain for the St. Paul Police Department and Ramsey County Sheriff's Office.

Many times it's difficult for chaplains to find the right words for grieving families, which is when faith begins to play a large role in the situation, said Drew Baldridge, a police chaplain and pastor of King's Quest Church in Woodbury.

"It's hard to know what to say when you are trying to comfort somebody that has just lost a loved one," Baldridge said. "Even after years of counseling and working in ministry you may find yourself in situations where you just don't have the right words. But I think faith and prayer gives me the ability to speak words of wisdom in those delicate situations."

And as with any situation, people have different levels of faith and spirituality that they are comfortable sharing, Olson said.

"My general rule is to come in with a more low-key religious perspective," Olson said. "You let them know who you are, and get a sense for their comfort level."

As liaisons between the police department and faith community, Olson and Baldridge said they will often connect families with a faith community they are most comfortable with. Other times, they may be the only tie to a faith community the families have.

"I remember I once offered a woman who lost her son any help she needed," Baldridge said. "She ended up calling me and I did the funeral."

The support that the members of the chaplain corps provide internally for police, fire and other public safety emergency services workers has come to be of immeasurable value over the years since the corps was created, said Todd Johnson, Woodbury deputy public safety director.

"Whenever we need them and especially during some very tough situations, they are there to help out the families in need and help us do our job," Johnson said. "They help us keep our heads in the game."

But for Baldridge, it isn't about any satisfaction he gets out of working with the police as much as it is a civic duty he believes he is called to do.

"Being there on the scene to see the police officers and emergency workers at work, it gives me a deeper appreciation for the job they do," Baldridge said.