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Street Cred

I have to admit it, first responders aren't sure what to make of me at times. “Uh, you’re a chaplain. How long have you done that?” Not only are they wondering if I’m a “preacher,” they also wonder how I got hooked in with the fire service. Then they are surprised to find out that I have only been a chaplain 12 of the 17 years I’ve been in the fire service and yes, I have had my share of putting wet stuff on the red stuff, pulling people out of cars, and doing CPR. If they are in my office they may scan the patches on the wall from departments I’ve served with.

The other day I was talking with a firefighter who had been talking with another chaplain. I asked how it was going. He told me he wasn't sure he could really open up to this other chaplain because though he had been a fire chaplain for years, he had never been a firefighter.

If I thought it was an isolated event I probably wouldn’t bring it up, but it’s not. Can you be a chaplain to first responders if you have never been a first responder? In my experience with first responders I would say yes, but you will have a number of obstacles to overcome.

First responders will want to know your “street cred.” They want to know that you have actually been there and can relate to what they have been through. They want to know that you speak the same language (or do they have to talk to you like a “civilian” or some “holy Joe”?)

They will also want to know that you will accept them for who they are and not judge them. Will you think less of them if you know they drink? Will you walk away if they light up that “much needed” cigarette or take that dip of chew? Will you be offended or correct them if they cuss in front of you?

Henri Nouwen writes in The Wounded Healer,

"Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: “Who can take away suffering without entering it?” The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there."

Even if you have never put on the boots, first responders are asking if you can enter into their pain. What pain and loss experience have you been through? How has your faith pulled you through? Are you willing to immerse yourself into their culture because God has done something remarkable in your life? If you are and want to care, that will be all the “street cred” you will ever need, though it make take time.

Is being a chaplain to first responders worth it f you have never been a first responder? I would say unequivocally yes. Being a first responder is a very difficult job to do. A lot of people can't just leave the job at work when they go home. The job has affected them in significant ways. First responders need friends who are willing to listen and care. And most of all, they need friends that are willing to enter into their pain.

Chaplain Chris Wade

Vice President

South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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