The four chaplains were relaxed, telling stories and laughing a little in a conference room in the basement of the Wilmington Police Department when Linda Rawley came in looking serious.
Senior Chaplain the Rev. Linwood Nesbitt knew her look and sat forward in his chair, his smile fading.
“I'm sorry to interrupt, but there's been a situation,” said Rawley, the department's Community Resource Coordinator. “We've had shots fired at a police officer, and the suspect is on the run. I'll keep you posted, but I just wanted you all to know you might be needed. Who's on call?”
Everyone looked at Nesbitt. It would be his turn to be available to counsel an officer or talk with residents in downtown Wilmington after the shooting.
But for Nesbitt and the other long-serving chaplain the Rev. Richard Marshburn, it's nice to have other chaplains with whom to depend on and share the load of weekly WPD shifts. In the last year, the police department has added five chaplains for a total of seven, the most in the chaplain program's history.
“We wanted to bring some diversity allowing the officers and civilians to talk to a variety of ministers,” Rawley said of the corps that now consists of evangelical, Holiness and Baptist pastors, Spanish-speaking pastors and the police department's first Catholic priest. “So many of our employees have different faiths or backgrounds. We see the chaplains as a counseling component of the agency now.”
The move has been part of an overall greater partnership between the Wilmington Police Department and the faith community including a group of pastors who work directly with communities affected by violence called Boots on the Ground.
“In the past, when things didn't go so well in a community, we always seemed to be reaching out to the clergy there, after the fact, to calm things down so we started reaching out to them more,” said Wilmington Police Department Chief Ralph Evangelous. “We think they (the chaplains) are an integral part of our outreach to the community now.” In all, the chaplains logged 693 hours in 2012 in ride-alongs, benedictions, office hours, counseling, training, death notifications, funerals and invocations, according to police records.
The Rev. Bryan Griffith, pastor of Topsail Baptist Church, said he sees their job as lighting the way for police officers as they do their duty.
“Policemen are surrounded by evil 24 hours a day, combatting it,” he said. “And if anyone needs the light, it's them.” After Griffith finished telling why he drives the 45 minutes from Topsail Beach to be a chaplain, Marshburn smiled slyly and joked: “That's it? Short and sweet just like you.”
Having the extra chaplains for support -and occasional good-natured comic relief – has lightened the load on Marshburn and Nesbitt, who've served as chaplains the last six years.
“It dwindled down to the two of us, and we were on call all the time for a while,” said Nesbitt, who also pastors New Covenant Holiness Church on Dawson Street. Marshburn is an associate pastor at the Soul Saving Station. “This is a volunteer position, and it made it intense at times, and I always felt like we weren't doing enough. These guys are great, and we've got a good mix now. We've become friends.” The other chaplains are Pastor James Jamison, Jr. of Hope Baptist Church For All Nations, Pastor Jose Cruz of Iglesia Vision Trinidad Divina Pentecostes and the Rev. Jeffrey Nichols of Anchor Baptist Church.
The chaplains go on regular ride-alongs with officers to crime scenes or on patrols or death notifications after car accidents.
“When you're riding with an officer, you share a common bond,” Nesbitt said, “and we both want to go home whole and happy to our families. . . We are not armed so we do have to stand back if there's going to be imminent gun play, but we've been fortunate not to be involved in any of that.”
The police chaplains are also available for officers to come to them for prayer or as a neutral ear at police headquarters. A different chaplain holds office hours each day of the week.
“I'm here with a word of wisdom, and people have spoken about spiritual problems, physical problems, even brain cancer,” Marshburn added.
And sometimes, the chaplains get to help with a little detective work. On his first police ride-along for a death notification, the Rev. Robert Kus, priest at St. Mary Catholic Church, helped translate for officers in the Hispanic neighborhoods of Pink Hill.
A young Hispanic man had been killed in a car accident, and police couldn't identify him. Clues in the man's car lead them to a trailer park in Pink Hill, where Kus and the police officer finally found his family and identified him.
The chaplains perform the department's swearing in ceremonies as well. They now have new chaplain badges, T-shirts, hats and soon, dress uniforms.
Griffith first met the other chaplains at his own son's swearing in ceremony as a Wilmington Police Department officer.
“Pastor Marshburn was there when my son was sworn in. I looked at him and said 'I'm trusting you to take care of my boy,'” the pastor said with a smile. “He said he would, and he hasn't let me down. I had no idea I'd be serving with him one day.”