Anyone who works in law enforcement or who has a loved one who works in a law enforcement agency dreads news like what we heard on Tuesday, February 2, 2021: two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents were killed and three injured in a shooting at a home in Sunrise, Florida. The gunman, also killed, was a 55-year-old man suspected of producing and trafficking child pornography.
The incident began just after six o’clock in the morning. The FBI agents were at the home to serve a federal court-ordered search warrant in a case involving violent crimes against children. In the ensuing shoot-out, Special Agents Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger were killed. Two other agents were injured and taken to the hospital and were released after treatment. One injured agent did not require hospitalization.2
I am a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a volunteer chaplain with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. More specifically, I serve the Violent Crimes Against Children (VCAC) Unit to which these agents belong. On the afternoon of February 2, I was contacted by the unit chief requesting that I come to provide support for the local members of the team, some of whom were acquainted or had worked with the agents involved in this tragedy.
The VCAC Unit was created by the FBI to “provide a rapid, proactive, and comprehensive [task force] to counter all threats of abuse and exploitation to children when those crimes fall under the authority of the FBI.” Their job is to “identify, locate, and recover child victims” and to “strengthen relationships between the FBI and federal, state, local, tribal, and international law enforcement partners to identify, prioritize, investigate, and deter individuals and criminal networks exploiting children.”3
The scope of the investigations conducted by the FBI’s VCAC unit includes such things as:
- “Child abductions—the mysterious disappearance of a minor, especially a minor” 12 years of age or younger.
- “Contact offenses against children—production of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), sextortion, domestic travel to engage in sexual activity with children, and international travel to engage in sexual activity with children.
- “Sexual exploitation of children—online networks and enterprises manufacturing, trading, distributing, and/or selling CSAM.
- “Trafficking of CSAM—distribution or possession.
- “International parental kidnapping—wrongfully retaining a child outside the United States with the intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights.”4
The FBI began the volunteer chaplaincy program in 1991 because its employees involved in shootings and who work gruesome scenes needed additional support beyond that provided by mental-health professionals. FBI chaplains are unpaid volunteers who are protected by workplace rules and have security clearances like other bureau employees. Many of the more than 150 chaplains serve as chaplains in other law enforcement agencies in addition to their role as pastors or church employees. Like those in the military, health-care facilities, or corrections facilities, FBI chaplains do not proselytize during their ministry service. However, chaplains can help answer, in a different way from other professionals, the deeper questions in the hearts of those who witness a tragedy.
I have been a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for most of my ministerial career of more than 35 years. I have served in 12 local, county, and federal agencies with as few as 12 people and as many as 40,000 people and have never received financial compensation for my work. But the greatest reward has been to be associated with some of the finest, most dedicated people in the country.
I have attended many training sessions on subjects such as critical stress management; suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention; line-of-duty death; and law-enforcement burnout. I have also received training in hostage negotiation and peer support and counseling.
Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, I was deployed to New York City for two separate weeks to provide support to the rescue personnel, particularly the Port Authority Police Department. A few years later, following the collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in which thirteen people were killed and 145 were injured, I was part of the team that provided more than 30 interventions to the rescue personnel who worked during that incident.
In 2016, I was invited to join the FBI, the first and only Seventh-day Adventist chaplain to serve the bureau. Since then, two other Seventh-day Adventist pastors have joined the bureau. It is an honor and privilege to serve the premier law enforcement agency not just in the United States but, perhaps, the world. FBI employees are some of the smartest, best trained, and most capable people anywhere.
A chaplain’s work
Though among the best and brightest, FBI employees are still human beings, and they suffer great losses, such as on February 2, 2021. They have families, houses, cars, and pets, and yet they also have highly classified information being processed in their minds, information that can influence the safety and well-being of people all over the world, not just in the United States. They also carry the additional burden of secrecy and confidentiality. Much of what they do cannot be shared with anyone—family or friends.
My work with the FBI is to get acquainted with the personnel in the units where I serve as a chaplain. I walk the hallways and visit the agents and analysts in their cubicles and the supervisors in their offices. I make myself available if they wish to talk. I ask about their family, health, and well-being. I do not ask any specifics about their job because I do not need to know, nor would they tell me.
On Wednesday, February 3, I made my rounds around the office, stopping to talk to everyone. I returned on Thursday, February 4, just to make sure I had not missed anyone. I do not have to say much. A “Hello” or a “How are you?” is a sufficient invitation for anyone who would like to share what’s on their mind. But I know they appreciate my quiet presence, my willingness to listen, and whom I represent as a chaplain.
I remember the day a couple of years ago when I met Rachel.5 She saw me in the hallway and called to me. “Do you have a minute to talk?” she asked. We went to an empty conference room, where she told me that the next day would be the first anniversary of her daughter’s death. Her daughter had passed away unexpectedly, leaving Rachel to raise her daughter’s teenage son. Tears rolled down her face as she opened her heart, telling me of her sorrow, her concerns for her grandson, and how sad and tired she was. I listened quietly, shared a few prudent thoughts, and prayed with her. Ever since that day, whenever I see Rachel, she greets me with a big smile and thanks me for my help.
Helping law enforcement
That’s what I do as a chaplain. I am available, I listen, I help, I pray.
What about you, church pastor? I would like to encourage you to build bridges of understanding between police and community.
1. Pray for the law enforcement personnel in your church, community, and country. The stresses they live under can be overwhelming. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among them.6
2. Adopt your local police station. The Beltsville church in Maryland adopted the District VI Station of the Prince George’s County Police Department and made a space behind their station into a lovely patio, including a brand-new grill and picnic tables, where officers can enjoy a few minutes to relax and eat.
3. Set aside one Sabbath each year to celebrate and honor the law enforcement personnel in your congregation and community. Invite the chief of police or department representatives, introduce them to your congregation, and make them feel welcomed and appreciated.
4. Feed them on special occasions. I know cops have a reputation for eating donuts (more of a myth than a reality), but think about them working during all the holidays while you rest and spend time with your family. Your church can arrange to take precooked meals to the station for Christmas and other annual holidays so that all thy have to do is warm them up and have home-cooked meals. Be sure to contact them to find out how best to do that and what food they would most enjoy.
5. Volunteer as a police chaplain. Several Seventh-day Adventist law enforcement chaplains are serving their local police department, county sheriff’s department, state police department, or federal agencies such as the FBI and the United States Secret Service. For information on how you can get involved in such ministry, reach out to Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries.7
Chaplaincy, and particularly law enforcement chaplaincy, is not for every pastor. For those of us who do it, it is a great opportunity to minister to those who serve and protect our communities. But even if you are not called to be a law-enforcement chaplain, as a pastor, you can pray and lead your congregation to encourage, support, and pray for those who protect and serve. As that tragic day in Florida showed, such service can be painfully stressful for those who risk their lives almost daily for our safety.
- The FBI does not allow names of the chaplains to be in print or online for both our safety and the bureau’s.
- A shorter version of this article may be found in The Adventist Chaplain, issue 2, 2021, published by Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries.
- “Crimes Against Children/Online Predators,” FBI, accessed October 22, 2021, https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/violent-crime/cac.
- “Crimes Against Children, Online Predators.”
- Not her real name.
- Brian Scott-Smith, “Suicide the Leading Cause of Death for Police Officers, Data Show,” WSHU Public Radio, April 1, 2019, https://www.wshu.org/news/2019-04-01/suicide-the-leading-cause-of-death-for-police-officers-data-show
- See https://www.adventistchaplains.org/.