|Police chaplains bring church, community together|
The Rev. David Bennett and Kirkwood (Mo.) police Officer Cliff Kierstead prepare to
go out on patrol. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Missouri Annual Conference.
By Fred Koenig*
Feb. 9, 2009 | KIRKWOOD, Mo. (UMNS)
A chaplain’s shift initiated by local police following a multiple shooting last year has the church and community coming together like never before in this small town.
The Rev. David Bennett, pastor at Kirkwood United Methodist Church, leads the Kirkwood Police Chaplains, a group he refers to as “The God Squad.” About a dozen clergy from a variety of denominations take turns, with one pastor on call for the police department each week.
One year ago, on Feb. 7, local contractor Charles Lee Thornton entered a city council meeting in Kirkwood and killed five people, including two police officers, two council members and the public works director, before being shot dead by police. The mayor was shot and partially recovered but died several months later. A news reporter also was injured. Thornton reportedly had ongoing disputes with Kirkwood officials, including blaming the city for loss of contracts and the ticketing of his work vehicles.
The tragedy made city police Chief Jack Plummer want to bring the department and the community closer together. “They are working to enhance community and race relations, and to reduce the tension and do proactive things,” Bennett said.
Part of that effort has involved organizing the police chaplains in this nine-square mile community in West St. Louis County. The group was endorsed by the Kirkwood City Council on Sept. 8, 2008.
While on call, the clergyperson might be asked to respond to an injury at a traffic accident or help an officer deliver a death notice. The pastors are there for the 27,324-member community and for the department.
“We are there for the officers when they need someone to talk to,” Bennett said.
The chaplains are given police department jackets (the same as those the officers wear), identification badges and department service numbers.
Bennett is not letting it go to his head, though.
“I can’t write anyone a ticket or get you out of one,” he said. “But I can visit you in jail.”
Riding with police
The chaplains are also riding along with officers on patrol. On one of Bennett’s rides, police were trying to track down some kids who were ringing doorbells and running away as a prank. Then a “shots fired” call came over the radio.
“I had to go along, because we weren’t somewhere where I could really be dropped off,” Bennett said.
No one was injured, and no arrests were made. However, the episode did make Bennett realize he could get into anything when he’s out with officers. Now he wears a Kevlar (bullet-resistant) vest from the department when he rides along.
Police Officer Cliff Kierstead is a lifelong, third-generation member of Kirkwood United Methodist Church. He believes it is beneficial to have pastors experience ride-alongs, so they can better understand an officer’s viewpoint.
“Sometimes we need to come into situations in what may appear to be an aggressive manner, but it is necessary to ensure our safety and the safety of others in the area,” Kierstead said. “When the chaplains experience that from our perspective, hopefully they will be able to share that with others in the community so they can understand our procedures.
“It can help us get beyond the ‘us and them’ mentality.”
Bringing people together
The chaplains are working with the police department to organize a washer tournament (tossing metal washers in a can) in Meacham Park, a primarily African-American area of Kirkwood.
“We want to bring people together and have them get to know each other on a more casual basis, so they don’t just think, ‘There’s that trouble-making kid,’ or ‘There’s that harassing police officer,’ when they see each other,” Bennett said.
Being a police chaplain is not the only thing that has changed in the past year for Bennett. The church is involved in the “Community for Understanding and Healing,” a regular event in which a couple hundred people gather together and have a forum to discuss such topics as civic affairs and racism.
“The church has become incredibly engaged in the community around us,” Bennett said. “A year ago, I wasn’t doing much of this kind of thing at all. This gets back to roots of what we were taught in seminary, about how the church ought to interface with the community and city.”
As Kirkwood United Methodist Church continues to increase its involvement outside its walls, it is also growing stronger on the inside. Average attendance rose 5 percent last year, to 707.
*Koenig is director of communications for the Missouri Annual Conference.
News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry--Chaplains