On December 4th, I was invited to speak to the members of Henrico County Police Department’s Seniors and Law Enforcement Together (SALT) program. The SALT program seeks to empower seniors to be aware of and address crime problems they commonly face, as well as invites them to volunteer for the agency. This following is my prepared text:
When asked to speak this morning about my transition from law enforcement to being a pastor, I was hesitant. I am not too excited about talking about myself, and I am not sure how much it would interest you. So rather than just speaking on that issue, I wish to consider my journey in light of our shared call to community service. How do our own sacred life stories – and they are all sacred whether you realize it or not in my view – intersect with passions, interests, gifts, and ultimately our call or vocation?
The word vocation – at its root – indicates a mingling with the sacred…our purpose in life. It comes from the Latin root vocātiō, meaning a call or summons and inferring a higher power’s involvement. Now, vocations can and do indeed change during periods of our life just as mine did. We are much more than what we do, but I believe we all share a purpose to love God and our neighbor as ourselves in whatever we do. At every moment of our lives, even facing death, God can use those moments to bless us and others.
So using my own story to begin this reflection, we begin in my younger years. I was part of a family with some serious problems – as many families have problems – and amidst those problems rooted in generational bouts of alcoholism and mental illness, there indeed was love; at least as well as people could love at the time with their own woundedness. Now my parents provided and cared for me very well in many respects, but the systemic problems we faced often distracted them and sometimes caused people in my family to make even more poor choices. As is often the case as a teen in such situations, I found myself dabbling in things that I had no business in. Most people had no idea, including my parents. Indeed at one point, I did find myself in juvenile court over a serious auto accident. Looking back, I realize I could have spiraled much lower. Yet when some parents had written me off as a trouble maker, others did not.
In one instance, I was being driven with a friend to an event by his mother. She began to talk about how good we were and unlike that boy who got into trouble. The only problem remained that unknown to her I was that boy. Yet, others did see past my problems to possibilities. Another friend’s father, a volunteer with a youth ministry, reached out to me, and he got me involved. At my workplace (a local 8,000 seat arena), a police officer always found time to talk to me, ask about my grades and my future plans. At school, one English teacher treated me with respect and helped me learn to begin to respect myself more. He challenged me to look at the world and myself through new eyes and with imagination.
Such interactions made a difference. I am sure these folks might not have known it at the time. They might not even remember me, but one never knows what kind word or ethical action observed might plant a seed. And seeds were planted. In time, I came to want to serve others, and attended the Virginia Military Institute, and after a short time on active duty for training as an Army Reserve officer, I transitioned into my own police career at the City of Alexandria Police.
Now at the time, crack was hitting cities hard. The metro-DC area news had body counts each day, and as I graduated from the academy, one of our officers, Corporal Charles Hill, was murdered in a drug related hostage situation. It was a wild time, and I grew up a lot. A sense of idealism was difficult to maintain with some of the things I saw and experienced. Yet again, thanks to friends, I was invited to participate in a loving church family and volunteer in some outside service activities: shop with a cop, bicycle helmet drives, other things of that nature, but also as an adult volunteer with a campus ministry at what is now the University of Mary Washington. Already, I had noticed a gift for working with youth from the housing projects during my midnight shift, but this volunteering really helped broaden and mature my view of the world, myself, and even God.
You probably already recognize that law enforcement officers face a disproportionate amount of evil on a daily basis. They see and experience what John Calvin would describe as humanity’s depraved nature or what Martin Luther would consider examples of the human tendency to be bent inward upon oneself (in other words selfish, and therefore not loving of God and neighbor as we should be). For some, this turns the officer into a fountain of cynicism. For others, they see humanity for what they are – not always the best they can be – but they recognize more is going on in the world. Goodness is still at work, and so in the face of evil and tragedy, they dedicate their hearts to make a difference. I witnessed this as fellow officers raised funds during the shift from other officers for a homeless couple who needed diapers for their baby. I saw it as people I knew volunteered with service projects in the community unrelated to policing; one even volunteering with a jail ministry.
This wasn’t naïve idealism. There were victory and losses to be sure, but the call to make a difference kept them trying. Hope kept them oriented on what could be rather than just settling. Like many of them, I found in volunteering that I got more than I gave. Working with the college students I rediscovered a more positive, hopeful way to look at the world and others even as I mentored them. I also found my faith in God grow stronger.
Eventually, I began to wonder if God was calling me to something else…something else not better mind you….just different. Through connections, I was eventually invited to spend some time volunteering and discerning with an international, ecumenical group that works with young adults in France called Taizé. So, I took my leave of law enforcement to test the waters of full time ministry. Although I didn’t stay with this ministry, I found my law enforcement and personal background and experience fit well with what they did. It helped me relate to young adults, many with troubled pasts or coming from violent areas throughout the world. As one brother told me, “We have similar hearts.” Yet, I felt a strong pull to come back to the United States to use the gifts I had been identifying perhaps more fully.
My first weekend home, I attended my parent’s Roman Catholic Church, and coincidentally a bishop from South Dakota was thee seeking funds and/or volunteers. I had mentioned to my parents of my possibly seeking a mission stint in Eastern Europe, South America or Native Americans (areas of interest and places I had met friends from in France), so I went and spoke to the bishop, now Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia. This “chance” meeting resulted in an invitation to have my resume past around state of South Dakota, and I found a new home and call at St. Joseph’s Indian School.
St. Joseph’s Indian School is a residential school serving at risk Native Youth from elementary age through high school, and recently into college aged young adults. I was to live as a house parent among the high school students, serving as the father figure, mentoring counseling, helping with homework and driving kids to places – most anything any parent would do. Yet once again, my past experiences helped me in the present.
Most of these kids were from among the poorest and most addicted places in America, where violence and sex crimes against children are much too common, and gangs have a strong foothold. We had kids that lived in home without heat in a place where -35 degrees could be the high for the day, or perhaps they had no toilet, or maybe they had no home at all and bounced from house to house as people became willing to take them in. At least one I worked with had all his possession including clothes fitting in a small brown paper grocery bag. It was a tough place, isolated and with extreme weather.
Many new employees quite, but I found that the kids responded well to me. My police work helped me meet them as they were, without shock or pity. I could understand what they would share with me without needing to ask what they would think of as stupid questions, and I respected them as my own mentors respected me. I understood that as messed up as their families might be, it was still there family, and that amidst all the violence and trouble, their culture and they themselves had much to offer me. In fact, the logo of the school reflects a truth I already mentioned. We often get more than we receive when we volunteer and serve others. The tag line for the logo was “We give and teach. We receive and learn.” Students and staff mutually benefited and grew from this relationship with one another.
After three and one half years, I had completed my initial commitment. I returned to Virginia to attend seminary. I entered a special dual program where I earned a Master of Divinity degree from Union Presbyterian Seminary and an MS from Virginia Commonwealth University. My thesis focus was upon how faith and mentoring can help mitigate delinquency, but this experience again brought home to me the reality that law enforcement for me was and remained a real ministry. It has continued to help me as I served in hospice chaplaincy and now in the parish. I am realistic about the challenges we face, but I am hopefully about the God we share. I maintain my foothold in the policing community as a chaplain for law enforcement, and I find my law enforcement experiences always helpful in the midst of the ordinary lives of people I serve – lives that often face significant troubles.
In law enforcement, we face sin and death head on. We seek to shine light in the darkness, restore family relationships, and bring justice to the community. We can find ourselves counseling or comforting a wayward teen, grieving family member or victim of violence at any time. In doing so, we have an opportunity to live out what Jesus said was the summary of all the law and the prophets, loving God with all we are and our neighbor as ourselves – even sometimes unto death.
As volunteers, you might not recognize the good you do, nor the eternal Good that works through you. Paperwork, small unrecognized tasks, or even a friendly, sincere hello might not seem like much, but one never knows what God might use to make the world and our community a better place and encourage others. Seeds can be planted through relationship. These small acts of love can free up others to love in some pretty difficult circumstances, so I argue your volunteering with the Henrico County Police Department has significant and eternal value. It is part of your vocational, sacred call in the present. Through this call, you have the opportunity to be a blessing to others and the community.
My experiences over the years has affirmed for me that we need to be united – faith communities, secular organizations, police agencies, and individuals – in bearing hope and love into our communities. It is a hope and love that I personally believe first came to us in a small town called Bethlehem long ago. A hope no one expected, an act of love that seemed so small, and yet it is a hope and love that remains with us and can work through us even on the darkest day.
In closing, I thank you again for your invitation and for your willingness to love. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and happy new year.
© 2012 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.