Wake Forest Police chaplains minister to officers and civilians alike.
by Carol Taber
WAKE FOREST — Tragedies happen.
In the blink of an eye, loved ones are hurt or perhaps killed in a car accident, or victims of crime find life suddenly altered, and the survivors don’t know what to do next.
Police officers are often the first responders in difficult situations. The Wake Forest Police Department (WFPD) has police chaplains available to the public to help guide survivors in the wake of a tragedy.
Started under former Police Chief Greg Harrington, the police chaplaincy program currently has two chaplains, Head Chaplain Sgt. Richard Brown and Officer Mike Lawson.
Brown began with the department as a patrol officer in 1999. He now serves in the Support Services Division. His department is involved with everything which supports officers on patrol: evidence, parking enforcement, recruiting, vehicles and equipment.
Lawson is currently the head of security at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS). He has also been an auxiliary officer with the Wake Forest Police Department since 2003.
Both men originally came to Wake Forest to attend seminary with the idea of going into full-time ministry. Brown moved here from Hawaii in 1995. When asked how in the world a guy from Hawaii ended up in Wake Forest, Brown said he asked his pastor what he thought was a good seminary to attend. His pastor was good friends with Page Patterson and recommend SEBTS. Brown was also inspired by his father, Arza Brown, who was both a police chaplain and pastor in Hawaii.
Brown helped start the chaplaincy program while still a seminary student. He sees the program as a calling.
“Through personal experience, I have received comfort during difficult circumstances through my faith and desire to help others who are facing difficult circumstances in their lives,” he said.
Brown said one of his favorite Biblical passages is 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 which reads, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
“As a chaplain, I bring the presence of Christ to the scene and seek to meet the physical and emotional needs of those present,” he said.
After graduation, Brown pastored a church in Durham for a short while. He had known he had a passion for helping people, but over time he came to realize that the channel for his passion was not in being a full-time pastor but in police work.
In 1999, there was an opening for a patrol officer with WFPD, so Brown completed his training and became a full-time police officer.
Lawson has an extensive police and military background having worked as a deputy sheriff in Greenville County, South Carolina, a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service and as a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Lawson also attended Southeastern to become a full-time pastor when he too realized that police work was the outlet for his calling.
Given his background, police work is understandable, but when asked why a police chaplain, he thoughtfully replied, “All Christians are called to represent Christ in whatever place they may find themselves. One of my favorite verses is Acts 8:4, (not because it is deep theologically, but because it demonstrates practically what this looks like) — ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’”
Lawson said he has always loved police work and that as he is working as an officer and is called out as a chaplain, he wants “to be the best Christian I can be while doing that job. Jesus said in Matthew 28:19, ‘Therefore, go ...’ — this is my way of going.”
During a critical incident, officers at the scene or members of the public can ask for the assistance of a police chaplain. Even though both men are employed by the police department, when they answer a call for a chaplain, they are off the clock, serving as volunteers in a crisis situation.
Brown says there’s no typical crisis and each one requires a unique level of care. Generally, when responding to the request for a chaplain when someone has been badly hurt or killed, Brown says he and Lawson first determine if the family wants their help. Their next step is to find out if the survivors are members of a faith community or if they have other family or friends they would like contacted.
They are a solid, comforting presence at accidents and crime screens. Brown said his ministry could be as simple, and as important, as getting water and shelter for family members at the scene of an accident, while they wait to find out what happened to their loved one.
Both men are sensitive to the growing religious diversity in our area and, just like military chaplains who are educated in faith-specific institutions, they minister in a crisis to those of any faith, or no faith, with respect and care.
Help in difficult places
It is often hard for loved ones to think clearly after a tragedy, or to know what to do next while still in emotional pain. The police department has designed a brochure to help people with details involved with an unexpected death — details most of us have no idea we will have deal with, such as how to get a copy of a police report, or where to get a copy of a death certificate, even how to contact employers and creditors.
Current Wake Forest Police Chief Jeff Leonard has written a personal letter printed in the brochure as a another demonstration of the care he and the department have for the community.
Brown and Lawson have information regarding local support and bereavement counselors, and are there for those who would like someone to pray with or to talk with about the hard questions in the aftermath of a crisis.
Brown has conducted funeral services at the request of victims’ families and often follows up with those to whom he has ministered to a few days later.
In addition to being a counseling resource, Brown says he has the joyful duty of sometimes officiating weddings for his fellow officers. Lawson mentioned that some of the most interesting conversations he has had with his fellow officers has been at the practice range.
Police chaplains minister both to the public and to the men and women wearing the badge. Most chaplains are former pastors with no hands-on police experience. Brown and Lawson bring a depth of understanding to their chaplain roles because they have the same experiences as the men and women with whom they are serving.
It has been a tense year for police enforcement officers. As of Sunday, the Office Down Memorial Page has listed 133 officers who have died while on duty this year. Brown and Lawson both said that they are grateful to be able to work and minister in a community which supports its police force. They were both working a Friday Night on White town event in July right after the Dallas Police Department lost five of its members in a sniper attack.
“The Wake Forest community showed their support to our officers by shaking our hands and telling us how much we are appreciated,” Brown said. He also said local children often bring homemade cookies to the police station and that at Thanksgiving, the station kitchen was filled with food gifts from the community.
For more information about the Wake Forest Police Department’s chaplaincy program, contact Brown at 919-435-9599.