Saturday, April 11, 2009

Touching the Wounds

My dad was a police chaplain. It was a volunteer job, something he took on in addition to his regular duties as senior pastor of a Lutheran congregation in Farmington, Minnesota, a small town south of St. Paul that evolved into a suburb in the 80s and 90s. The police department supplied him with a pager, and his assignment was to be available to assist law enforcement officers sent to deliver terrible news to grief-stricken families.

I don’t know what I would say if I were sent, as my dad was, to tell the parents of a teenager that their child has just committed suicide. The key to being effective, however, probably lies more in the ability to listen than in than trying to provide theological explanations, which can all too easily turn into trying to justify the unjustifiable. As Henri Nouwen wrote in Out of Solitude, there is no substitute for being fully present to each other, prepared to share another’s deep pain and touch their emotional wounds in a gentle way, until the moment of despair passes.

There have been many such moments across the country recently, with seemingly one shooting spree after another. It's been a nightmarish travelogue: From Oakland to Alabama to Pittsburgh and so many other places, including a nursing home in North Carolina and an immigrant service center in Binghampton, New York. The victims have included family members, police officers, and complete strangers. Even as the dead are buried and the physical wounds of the survivors fade from the headlines, the spiritual fallout for those personally touched by these tragedies has barely begun. Will someone be there to bind up the emotional wounds?

It’s been about a year and half now since my dad passed away, so I was not able to conduct an oral history interview with him to gather more detail about the situations in which the police called upon him for help. Yet I recall very well the kinship he felt with law enforcement offers. Like ministers, they are on the front lines, in a very direct way, in helping people, and civil society itself, deal with the clash of good and evil. For years, the Minneapolis Police Department used “to protect and serve” as a motto on its squad cars; in a more spiritual setting, that is what pastors do, too. Sometimes they serve simply by being present and touching the wounds.

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