Did This Police Officer Have a New Calling?

She had 24 years on the force, but now felt it was time to move on. Did God have a different path planned for her?

Posted in , Feb 26, 2018

Suzanne today in her role as a hospital chaplain

The young man lay in the middle of the stage inside the campus theater. Two fellow student actors huddled next to him. He’d collapsed during their rehearsal. I was on patrol that night and assigned the call. I checked his pulse. Nothing. A police sergeant, 24 years on the job, I knew what to do. I started CPR, barely aware of the students sitting in seats around me. But I couldn’t get a heartbeat.

Paramedics arrived and lifted the young man onto a gurney. Students crowded onto the stage. “What hospital is he going to?” one asked. “We want to go there.”

They were too distraught to drive. I radioed for a grief counselor to meet with them. “You won’t be able to help him at the hospital,” I said. “You’d be better saying a prayer together.”

Where did that come from? In my entire career, I’d never once suggested that anyone pray. I was a police officer, not a pastor. I believed in the power of prayer, but praying out loud made me uncomfortable. I was never sure what to say, how best to connect with God through words.

All around me, students joined hands, two of them taking mine. The theater fell silent. They all looked at me. It took me a moment to realize what they were waiting for. What now? I’d been asking myself that a lot lately. I was 43. Years of working the night shift had taken its toll, the wear and tear on my body, the danger inherent in protecting and serving. As much as I loved the work, law enforcement is a young person’s game. I’d seen others hang on until it was too late. They grew bitter. Broken. Angry. They lost the respect of other officers. I didn’t want that happening to me.

Already, dedication to my work had come at a cost. My husband was tired of our never spending evenings together, of me being married to my job, and had left me five years before, shortly after the birth of our only child. Here I was, a single mom, still working nights, weekends and holidays. I badly needed a change.

I’d had my share of dangerous experiences. But what gave me the most satisfaction were these day-to-day calls, helping victims, being a calming presence in crises, building relationships with people on my beat. The other officers sometimes teased me about my warm and fuzzy approach, but I’d earned their trust and risen through the ranks. I’d learned a lot, earned my master’s in education. Maybe my next step would be teaching police science.

None of that mattered now as I stood in the theater, all eyes on me. I needed a prayer. Fast. My patrol partner watched curiously from the stage’s edge.

“Dear God,” I began. I had nothing. “Right now, we’re feeling alone…and scared.” I took a deep breath. Words began to flow from my lips, as if someone else were speaking. Someone perfectly attuned to this moment. Someone who knew the exact message these students needed to hear. When I finished, the woman next to me spoke, then a man after her. Together we prayed for more than an hour. The theater filled with a wondrous sense of peace. The grief counselors arrived. I had to get back to the station and write my report. My partner wore a puzzled expression. I worried I’d crossed a line.

She came up to me when I was doing my paperwork. “Suzanne, you missed your calling,” she said. “Seriously, you should be a minister.”

I laughed it off. But the next day, I couldn’t stop thinking, Could there be something deeper going on? Some kind of divine direction? It seemed a stretch. I was a Presbyterian, a regular churchgoer, but I’d questioned my beliefs about my faith, never volunteered to be a lay reader or teach Sunday school.

That Sunday, I talked to my pastor. “I can’t say what God is trying to tell you,” she said. “But as it happens, the associate dean of the San Francisco Theological Seminary is visiting today. I’m sure he’d love to meet you.”

The dean encouraged me to spend a day on campus. Inspired, I enrolled for the fall 1999 term.

My son was excited I would be going to school as he entered first grade. “We can do homework together!” he said. My partner on the force was encouraging too. But other officers were noticeably cooler. “I don’t need anyone preaching to me,” one said.

The commute to my classes was more than two hours each way. I went a couple nights a week and all day on Saturdays. My former husband cared for our son those days. It was a three-year program, but attending part-time would take much longer. The lectures and readings fascinated me, all the history, the ways in which one idea, like God’s love, could have so many levels of meaning. That simply being present could be a way of ministering.

But the work was way more demanding than I’d imagined. Learning Greek and Hebrew made my head hurt. I was being asked to write about topics I’d never considered. What does God ask of us? What is faith? In addition to working full-time as a police officer, I volunteered one day a week as a hospital chaplain and eventually served as a ministry intern at a local church. God, is this really what you want of me? I’d wonder, driving home exhausted. The other students at seminary seemed so much more knowledgeable about Scripture, more spiritual than me.

I struggled at first as a chaplain. I was nervous initiating conversations with critically ill patients. They often didn’t want to talk. I’d try to fill the silence by asking questions or offering words of consolation, but that only made things worse. “Can I pray for you?” I’d finally ask. Even that felt like a hard sell.

Serving as a ministry intern came easier. I was good at administrative details and directing others. I liked preparing and delivering sermons. My parishioners were warm and encouraging. I was growing spiritually, my understanding of God’s word deepening. I could see myself pastoring a church.

At the police station, officers were coming to me to talk about their marriages, anxieties, the stress of the job, even asking me to pray for them. I read up on how the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Response Team mobilized after catastrophic events, like Hurricane Katrina. It seemed a perfect fit for my police training, but I wasn’t sure how to do that and pastor a church.

If only I could become more comfortable ministering in the hospital. I talked to my supervisor. “Don’t feel as if you have to talk to everyone,” she said. “Sometimes it’s enough just to be present. That alone tells people you care.”

Ministry of presence. I remembered that from seminary. I didn’t have to do anything when I was with a patient. It wasn’t like being a police officer, needing to take action.

Now when i went into a patient’s room, I’d ask, “Do you mind if I sit down for a few minutes?” Conversation flowed more naturally. Sometimes no words were needed. I’d take a patient’s hand and feel the tension melt away. People often asked me to pray for them. I didn’t agonize over what to say. The words just came. Like that night at the theater. Only now I knew what it meant to let God speak through me.

Six years after starting seminary, I was pretty much set on becoming a pastor. I just needed to complete my field work and a couple more courses. Then I could retire from the police force, graduate and seek ordination.

January 2006. Shots fired at the main post office distribution center. A former employee holed up inside, killing. We opened a church where family members could gather. Dispatch sent me to try to manage the chaos. That’s when I saw him. One of the chaplains there. He looked overwhelmed. I took him aside and got him water. “Take deep breaths,” I said. “It’s okay. You’re not alone. We’re here to help each other.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Not everyone understands.”

In that moment, it was as if I was making some sort of passage, between my present as a police officer and my future as a provider of comfort and compassion. The path I was on no longer felt like a surprise. It seemed purposeful.

I retired months later at a special event that gave me the opportunity to publicly say goodbye to almost 200 officers and deputies. It took two years to finish my coursework and be ordained. By then, the pastor I was assisting had left. Several congregants encouraged me to apply for the pastorate. I consulted with my supervisor at the hospital.

“Sounds like a great opportunity,” she said. “But in your heart, you’re a police officer. You’ll miss being where the action is. I’ve seen the way you interact with patients. You have a strength that comes from where you’ve been, who you are. You’re a natural chaplain. The hospital is where you belong.”

I thought back to the shooting and the sense of purpose I’d felt. This message didn’t come from just my supervisor.

I’m 61 now. I still protect and serve. Or, should I say, serve and protect. For eight years, I’ve worked as an on-call hospital chaplain and volunteered as a member of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Response Team, a calling that’s taken me to the tragic school shooting in Newtown, to Joplin after its horrific tornado and, last fall, to Houston and Tampa. I go where God sends me because it’s never too late for a new start.

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