Police department chaplain finds another calling outside pulpit

October 27, 2003|by MARLO BARNHART

While most chaplains find their calling inside the four walls of a building, Stephen Robison's pulpit often is found inside a Hagerstown City Police cruiser on patrol or at a crime scene.

Working with the police department since 1985, Robison was just one of many area chaplains recognized last week during Pastoral Care Week across the country. No matter whether they work in a hospital, nursing home, prison, the military or at disaster scenes, chaplains often find themselves on the front lines during crises.

"When I took this position, I didn't want to be just a figurehead," Robison said. For many years, he either rode or walked along with a beat officer on each of the three shifts at least once a month.


That regular contact has dwindled somewhat lately because Robison's duties as senior pastor at Otterbein United Methodist Church have been pressing.

"We're involved with bringing the church into the 21st century," he said, citing extensive building renovations and staff realignments under way at the 108 E. Franklin St. church.

The whole idea of having a police department chaplain was never to hold Bible studies or therapy sessions, Robison said.

"I am there as a friend the officers can talk to in complete confidence," he said.

He listens to what is on their minds and then offers ideas on how to think about the situation.

"I ask what's bothering them and sometimes they will open up about it," Robison said.

Considering the kind of work police do, there often are times when officers are overwhelmed by the horrors of child abuse and other cruelties people inflict upon each other.

"I see my role there as helping them stay in touch with their humanity," Robison said.

Keenly aware that police officers must keep their emotions in check to a certain degree, Robison helps them know when they need to share and show those feelings.

Something as simple as an officer going home and hugging his own kids can be very beneficial after a traumatic day on the job, Robison said.

And most importantly, Robison has built up a trust with the officers who know whatever they say to him is confidential.

Sometimes officers will get together after a difficult incident to debrief each other, which Robison said is a very healthy thing. He will join in whenever he's asked.

Not long after he was approached in 1985 by then Chief Clint Mowen and Sgt. George Clark, Robison was called upon to make his first death notification in the case of three children killed in a fire on South Potomac Street.

"That one was very hard on everyone," Robison said.

After the fatal shooting of a fleeing suspect in the 100 block of Summit Avenue in the mid 1980s, Robison worked with the police officers who were involved, helping them cope with that unique situation.

There was a particularly memorable night on First Street a number of years ago, Robison said, when he was on a ride-along during a call for suspects fleeing a crime scene.

"When we arrived, the first thing we saw was a man coming across a field in the dark waving a baseball bat," Robison said. The officer aimed his weapon at the man, believing him to be a suspect and yelling for him to stop.

Later, the officer told Robison that he had been very close to pulling the trigger. The officer thought the man was attacking them, when in fact it was a night watchman from the crime scene who didn't understand English.

Those kinds of stressful situations may not happen every day in Hagerstown, but when they do, Robison is there to help the officers cope.

Robison, 53, is in his 18th year at Otterbein. He and his wife, Darlene, have two daughters, Sonya and Dorrie.

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