Chaplains focus on 'presence'

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 23, 1999

BALTIMORE (April 23, 1999) -- Bill Guindon shares the nation's acute grief

for the young people lost in Tuesday's tragic high school shooting. But, as

chaplain of West Metro Fire and Rescue in Jefferson County, CO, his outlook

is by necessity, different.

And his job is difficult: to help emergency service workers in Jefferson

County deal with their own shock and grief so they can respond to the next

call. And the one after that.

Guindon is chaplain to more than 280 uniformed fire and rescue personnel,

many of whom responded to the Columbine High School shooting, from the

initial call to later search and rescue operations.

As chaplain, Guindon's job is to minister to emergency workers, not

necessarily victims' families. But this time that professional line has

blurred. "The one faculty member who was killed is the father of one of our

dispatchers. She wasn't on duty at the time. But she will probably want to

be back at some point," he said.

"Right after the incident, we did a 'diffusing' with our crew. They heard

factual information about things they had already seen, or the things they

might see. Then we talked about ways to prepare themselves when

encountering their own grief."

Two days after the incident, emotional reactions began to crescendo for

most emergency workers, he said. "And it will still be hitting people. Our

community has been impacted tremendously. Everybody's grieving. But each

person reacts differently. It's an individual process."

Guindon has been a emergency service minister for more than 10 years. Is

this the worst he's ever seen? "Well, first of all, you can never compare

tragedies. I've been called to line-of-duty deaths and there's no pain like

that. But, yes, this may be the worst."

Yesterday Guindon joined fire and law enforcement personnel in a meeting

with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. "We have been going nonstop," he


Some 20 of Guindon's fellow chaplains from across the country gathered for

a workshop at the Fifth World Congress of the International Critical

Incident Stress Foundation in Baltimore, on Wednesday to talk over their

roles and professional challenges.

Wanting to stop people's pain and to answer the oft-asked question 'why?'

-- but not being able to really accomplish either -- frustrates many

chaplains, said Ed Stauffer, a fire and police chaplain in Fort Worth, Tex.

who now trains chaplains across the country. "At the same time you also

have to deal with your own pain," he said. "I remember getting a call at

two in the morning from a firefighter whose daughter had died. I had

baptized that child. I married that couple. I remember thinking 'what am I

going to say to this man?' "

Guindon said that, often it's not a chaplain's words, but his or her

reassuring presence that comforts emergency personnel. "It's a matter of

being there for people in whatever way they wish," he said.

Thomas Engbers, a fire service chaplain in Miami, FL, said he makes sure

he's at meals and breaks with the firefighters. "I'm there and I'm

available. You'd be amazed at the things that go through firefighters'

minds -- things that don't even seem to be related to the incident."

"When I start feeling like I need to do something, instead of simply

listening, I really have to look hard at myself," he said. "I still have to

remind myself that sometimes just being there is enough and that sometimes

people don't want any more than that."

Stauffer calls this "the ministry of presence."

"Once I went to visit a man whose son had just died. He said to me,

'Chaplain, when you got here I thought a miracle would happen. It didn't.

But thank you for coming and helping me realize my son is gone. Now what do

I need to do?' "

Chaplains help emergency response workers go on with their lives -- both

professionally and personally -- after repeatedly dealing with tragedy.

Then they have to help themselves go on with their own lives. "There is

nothing you can see that will stop this life from going on," said Stauffer.

"But sometimes, honestly, you feel like you want it to stop. I remember

being on the scene of a plane crash and seeing another plane, just like the

one that was down, taking off. I felt so angry. I thought 'how can they do

that?' But things go on. You ultimately let them go on."

When under severe emotional strain, chaplains practice their own

psychological exercises -- and often teach them to others. "I go and I get

a glass of orange juice," said Stauffer. "I put ice cubes in it, and with

every sip I thank God for that orange juice and how good it is for me. It

sounds simple but it really helps me."

Guindon said that he can sometimes minister best just by "hanging around."

"I'll keep on eye on people, see how they're processing. I'll make sure

they're okay. But it's not a heavy-handed approach."

What emergency response workers often need is a place of refuge, said

Stauffer. "That's what we as chaplains can provide -- a place where people

can ventilate so their fear can subside. We can't be all things to all

people. But our ministry of presence can be a refuge."

Posted April 23, 1999

Related Topics:

Could a boycott curb school violence?

TX church meets grief, support

Community is key in violence

More links on Public Violence


DNN Sponsors include: