Police Chaplain Phyllis Poe had been offering comfort and coffee last April at the Oklahoma City bomb site when a police officer, covered in dirt, approached her and said desperately, "You've got to pray with me."
After more than 16 hours of digging through what was left of the federal building, the officer was preparing to return to the unimaginable task of searching for more buried bodies. Using an infrared camera, he had recovered 48 victims the night before, including a dead 4-year-old boy whose eyes were still open. The officer thought of his own 4-year-old son who was alive and well at home.
The officer was so caked in dirt and blood that Poe did not immediately recognize him; then she suddenly realized he was a friend from her own Oklahoma City Police Department. As they sat next to each other and prayed, the two felt a pair of arms wrap around them, offering warmth and strength. It was Poe's husband, Chaplain Dr. Jack O'Brian Poe. "It was awesome," Phyllis Poe recalled. "My heart bled for him (the officer). It gave me insight into what he was going through."
The husband and wife chaplain team, who have lent support to the Oklahoma City Police Department since 1990, were provided by the Southern Baptist Convention. Living less than 10 miles from the bomb site, they were among the first to arrive at the scene, ready to help. It was obvious to the Poes that like the survivors, those involved in the rescue efforts would face months of grief and emotional turmoil. As Jack Poe helped organize perimeters around the scene to keep out spectators, Phyllis Poe set up the Chaplain's Corner, a simple place of respite in the middle of what had become Hell.
"It was devastating," she recalled. "I didn't know a person could live on adrenaline for 21 days. Whatever needed to be done, we did it." As a police chaplain, she explained, her role is to assist police officers in need of support. "My main goal was to be there for the police. I hugged a lot of cops. That's where God put me."
During those first days, police detectives continued their search efforts, still dressed in business suits covered in dirt and blood. It became important for the chaplains "just to be a warm, real body next to them." she said. "We didn't have to say anything to them: just be there."
Poe said she learned that the officer who sought her companionship for prayer had reached for a diaper in the rubble and pulled it out, thinking he had found another child. Instead all he found was a baby's leg. "They weren't pulling out bodies, they were finding parts. That's what they were dealing with out there."
Poe said that throughout the ordeal the couple rarely slept and remained at the site for days on end, providing food and support. "Without the prayer of people throughout the state and the nation, we wouldn't have made it."
Gruesome, emotional and devastating—whatever the circumstances, police chaplains are committed to making themselves available where the greatest need exists for law enforcement officers, said David DeRevere, executive director of the International Conference of Police Chaplains (lCPC).
DeRevere, whose organization was established in 1973 in Texas and boasts a membership of more than 1,600, estimates that half the nation's police departments utilize chaplains either in volunteer capacities or with full-time staffs. Staffs can range from two to 40 chaplains. Chaplains are a tradition in the military and in law enforcement, but times are changing. The benefits, said DeRevere, are once more becoming apparent, appreciated and span the globe.
For instance, shortly after Hurricane Luis wiped out much of the islands of St. Correct and St. Thomas last year, police chiefs from both areas contacted ICPC. They requested assistance from chaplains to provide emotional support to officers whose homes had been destroyed. At least six chaplains from different regions of the country went to the islands-an effort financed by their individual law enforcement agencies, DeRevere said.
Chief Sam Gonzales, head of the Oklahoma City Police Department, agrees, calling the chaplains' role in law enforcement "significant." At the bombing site, for instance, they showed up the first day, offered snacks and coffee, and lent their support round-the-clock.
Because evidence had to be protected while the rescue efforts were carried out, the scene was even more chaotic. The destroyed building was also a crime scene; officers there not only helped in rescue efforts, but they also had to launch their investigation. The chaplains helped keep out the masses who came to help or see what had happened, the chief added.
"At the peak, there were about 100 chaplains (from different regions), all working in a coordinated effort to be out there. It became just as important to get a cup of coffee from them as words of encouragement."
Those "words of encouragement," he added, were critical to boosting the morale of those involved in the entire operation. He noted that Jack Poe, who recently was named president of ICPC, "is one of the few" who is permitted to enter Gonzales' office without an appointment and just say, "Chief, we need to talk."
Gonzales, who four years earlier worked at the Dallas Police Department, is familiar with the contributions of police chaplains and heartily endorses their work. Dallas had a dozen chaplains available, he said.
Meeting the Requirements
Over the years, the work has become more sophisticated as chaplains learn more about police procedures and the duties related to their work, DeRevere added. The ICPC offers three levels of certification that have helped the chaplain profession evolve.
The certifications include Level I, a 3.5-hour continuing education program covering 12 different areas; Level II, which is available to chaplains with at least five years experience and requires 150 hours of class-work; and Level III, which is otherwise known as the Master's Level, with a requirement of 250 hours of course work. Chaplains also must write a master's paper and participate in an oral interview to receive this certification.
While the chaplain's role is primarily to serve the officers, there are a variety of other duties as well, ranging from death notification, counseling family members, community outreach programs and officiating over funerals.
Father Michael Swan, an Episcopal priest and a former chaplain in Tampa, was enthusiastic about functioning as a support system to police.
Swan assisted police in 1992 when a disgruntled former employee of the Fireman's Fund returned to the company's Rocky Point office building at lunchtime and gunned down three company executives in the cafeteria.
Stunned by what he had seen, Swan said his respect for police work and how officers handle crises situations soared. The ever-friendly Swan said his main goal was to serve as an outlet for officers who had no other place to express their frustrations. Offering a shoulder to lean on and an ear to bend, Swan said he learned to understand the stresses that police endure.
Poe said her work sometimes goes beyond ministering just to the officers themselves. She said she is sometimes called to counsel females who don't feel comfortable confiding in men, as well as ministering to officers' spouses who may be experiencing marital troubles.
The Poes' 5-year marriage is entwined in their work.
They have teamed their pastoral duties for more than 20 years, and their work has not gone unnoticed. Since the bombing, they have received numerous invitations from organizations around the country to share their experiences during the aftermath of the bombing.