Faith, crisis and the first responder

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Almost a week has gone by since the Marathon bombings – another terrorist act that has rocked the foundations of America’s comfort and security. If that wasn’t enough, the event was followed by a plant explosion in Texas with more injuries and loss of life. I really haven’t found a good way to express my sadness over either tragedy. I am on the outskirts of both situations. My sadness is purely communal.

Sports Illustrated Cover Image

Sports Illustrated Cover Image

So, instead of focusing on the broken pieces of grief, I’ve decided to shine a light on the people who lift us up during these extreme moments. I’m talking about the first responders who, in times of crisis, demonstrate the true power of the human spirit. They rush towards horror – not away. They normalize a situation, save lives and secure the community. They don’t consider themselves heroes but the rest of us often do.

On April 22, Sports Illustrated will feature John Tlumack’s iconic photo of three Boston Police Officers springing into action. This shot captures the instantaneous response of the officers – a moment in time. I am always transfixed by such photos. They leave me with a deep sense of awe that dredges up powerful tears of respect. I couldn’t do what they do. In emergency situations, I’m best locked in a padded room until danger passes.

On Tuesday, Rabbi Shai Held posted an article in The Tablet, a Jewish online magazine, which contemplates the first responders’ dedication to serve. Speaking through his faith, he writes:

In Jewish theology, the highest human ideal is to “walk in God’s ways.” A well-known Talmudic text puts it this way: “Just as God clothes the naked, so should you; just as God visited the sick, so should you; just as God comforted the mourners, so should you; and just as God buried the dead, so should you” (Sotah 14a). To walk in God’s ways, in other words, is to act in the ways that the Torah describes God as acting. Just as God is present when people are vulnerable and suffering, so should we be.   

Generally speaking, Christians have a similar theological ethic. I spoke with John Morehead, custodian for the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. He explained:

In the Christian tradition, [there are] ethical teachings of putting others ahead of yourself, and this is done in light of the overarching New Testament teaching of the death and resurrection of Christ as God using…human evil as a form of transformative justice where the giving of innocent life out of love overcomes evil …

Christians use Biblical verse to support their charitable work and commitment to community. For example, Peter 4:10 reads “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others.”

What is the role of Pagan theology in the mindset of the first responder? We don’t have referential texts to guide our sense of transformative justice or “Godliness” as it were. Is there any religiously-based ethic that drives Pagan first responders?

Peter Dybing

Peter Dybing

I contacted ten different first responders. Unfortunately, most of them could not participate in the discussion. The demands, sensitivity and climate of their jobs prevent them from being publicly Pagan.

Fortunately, Peter Dybing was able to offer some insight. Peter is the Logistics Section Chief at National All Risk Incident Management Team, a Wild land Firefighter, an EMT and an IFSTA Fire Service Instructor. For Peter, becoming a first responder was part of his own spiritual transformation. He had what some may term “a calling” that coaxed him from the buttoned-up corporate lifestyle into one of service and Goddess spirituality. He said:

As my relationship with the Goddess blossomed I understood compassion as being central to my chosen path. The desire was strong to engage in service to my community as part of my goal to grow in my relationship with divinity… Believing that all contains the spark of the divine drives me to be in service to the entire world …

This commitment continues to drive Peter’s work. He added:

In service to those in crisis I feel the presence of divinity in a more powerful way than I ever have at any ritual. Often I am overwhelmed with the sense that I am walking my path “with” the Goddess.

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Pagan Chaplain Sandra Harris, M.Div expressed a similar connection with the Goddess in her work.* Since we last spoke, Sandra has completed her training as a community chaplain first responder. She is also a trained crisis chaplain acting as the on-call chaplain for a Level 1 Trauma Center and a hospital.

Sandra’s Pagan faith and interest in religious plurality lead to her work as a hospital chaplain. However, her underlying need to serve was born much earlier, during her Girl Scout years. She said:

I now recognize my own Brownie initiation as my first Craft initiation. The magic embedded the ethic deeply in me, and that ethic includes being prepared and helping other people…That magic is a very potent driving force, reinforced through life and practice…

Although Sandra’s and Peter’s work are very different, they both use their spirituality while on the job. Peter explains:

I always silently call the directions, invoke divinity and ask for guidance. At large disasters this process is more formal.  At smaller more immediate events this process is often completed in a shortened version before I even step from my vehicle… On two occasions, I was asked what I was doing. I stated that it is a private matter. There is an unwritten rule that we do not discuss issues like politics and religion with each other on scene.

As a chaplain, Sandra’s spiritual connection goes beyond personal practice. She said:

On the job, I am the hands and voice of the Goddess, as She chooses to work and speak through me.  I give myself over to this when I arrive on scene, then proceed to do what needs done trusting that I will know what to do…The scene, whatever it is, is Sacred Space. On entering Sacred Space, I ground and center, then invoke Her Presence…  Then I do, whatever – knowing and aware.  When stepping out of this Sacred Space, I ground and center again, thank Her, and leave the rest in Her hands…. This is the only way I know to remain sane in the face of the outrageous, the horrible, the traumatic, and the anguish.

A retired police officer confided in me that, like Sandra, his Pagan faith has also helped him through many difficult situations. However, he also emphatically stated that his work really has no theologically-based ethic. He explained, “[Officers] enjoy doing their job and working to help the public.”  Peter, Sandra and John Morehead all echoed this sentiment.


Vietnam Women’s Memorial
Courtesy of Flickr’s lindseywb

I believe that to be true. Time and time again, we have all witnessed the average person become a “first responder.” Although they are normally fire fighters, police officers, EMT and military personnel, they can also be flight attendants, pilots, medical professionals, passengers on a doomed flight and even a teacher willing to take a bullet to save her children. In that respect, there is a first responder instinct deep within all of us. It begins with an ethic that is born of our humanness and rises, when needed, through our personal world views, religious or not.

While we each might have the capability, some people have a gift, similar to that of artist, that pushes them into a life of service as a professional first responder. May we never forget to thank those individuals who risk personal sacrifice for the good of us all. They are the ones that stand ready to hold the light when and if the danger comes.

* Note: Here are some additional thoughts on Crisis Chaplaincy by Sandra Harris. The entirety of her statement did not fit in the article but these words were too insightful not to share.