By Edgar Mendez
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories about fifteen neighborhoods in the city of Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
When Melvin Reese, 69, hears his work phone ringing, he knows someone in crisis needs their help.
“I say a prayer for myself and for anyone I come in contact with while there,” said Reese, a member of the Salvation Army’s chaplaincy program in Milwaukee. Reese and other chaplains in the program, a partnership with the Milwaukee Police Department, are trained to respond to violent and often tragic scenes.
Sometimes they are called to a murder scene. Other times, they respond to suicides, car crashes, or any other situation that officers feel their services are needed. Chaplains also provide follow-up for those in need.
“The role of the chaplain is to provide spiritual and emotional care to any citizen who suffers from grief or trauma,” said Reese, who is also a deacon for Lamb of God Baptist Missionary Church in Milwaukee.
What they do once there depends on the situation, according to Reese, but it often includes speaking and praying with a victim’s family at a time of high emotions and hopelessness.
The Milwaukee chaplaincy program, which began six years ago, was initiated at the request of the police department at a time of heightened crime and violence in the city, according to Pastor Veloris Brooks, program coordinator Milwaukee Chaplaincy.
Currently, the team consists of 53 chaplains, Brooks said. Thirty, including Reese, are on call and run an emergency phone that can ring anytime, any day of the year.
“A soothing presence”
“They bring a calming presence to a very bad situation,” said Eric Pfeiffer, captain of the Milwaukee 4 Police District, who works with Reese and his team of chaplains. “Our ultimate goal is to prevent this violence from continuing.”
Knowing that chaplains are there can reassure both the community and the police, Pfeiffer added.
“When someone puts on that chaplain’s vest, people know what they’re doing there,” he said. “We are really grateful for their help.
In addition to providing emotional support, chaplains serve as a bridge between law enforcement and the community, helping officers focus on solving crimes.
Sometimes that means, for example, explaining why the body of a murdered relative is left in the cold.
“You feel sorry for your loved ones, but you have to explain that the police are not disrespecting and that this is part of the investigation,” Reese said.
“These chaplains are responding to a different kind of disaster in our community,” said Brooks.
To become a chaplain, applicants must pass a background check and complete several courses, including training for the MPD Citizen Academy, and undergo a senior chaplain for the first 30 days.
The courses they take provide training in spiritual and psychological first aid, suicide prevention and teach chaplains to help people cope with tragic situations. Their belief in a higher power completes this training.
“I fall back on my belief in God and his strengths,” Reese said, before reciting Philippians 4:13. “I can do anything through Christ who strengthens me. “
Not all calls involve violence.
Reese remembers an incident when he went to see a resident. The man suffered from advanced prostate cancer and mourned the death of his wife, which had occurred several years earlier.
Reese ended up taking the man to Southridge Mall to have his glasses repaired. There the man saw a sign depicting a paraplegic without legs.
“He said, ‘This guy has a problem, and my problems are nothing compared to his,” Reese recalls. That statement stuck with Reese, who must also find ways to meet her own challenges while empathizing with those of others.
To relax from the misery he sees regularly, Reese retreats to his prayer room when he returns home.
“I can walk into this room and just meditate – cry – think about the family members I just got involved with and also focus on myself and my well being,” he said.
Reese also attends an empowerment and prayer service for chaplains every two months. Brooks said she organized the special service to ensure they have specific support for their experiences as chaplains.
“I don’t assume they are spiritually equipped for the work we do,” she said. “Those who serve also have lives, situations and tragedies that they go through. “
The pandemic has created new challenges for the chaplaincy program. Most chaplains, including Reese, have withdrawn from the rotation of appeals for fear of contracting the virus and bringing it back to their families or others.
“I thought to myself that the police always call for chaplains, but we don’t answer because we’re scared,” Reese said. “I took a six month sabbatical until I was comfortable.”
Some have still not returned and the chaplaincy program is recruiting others to fill the void. Officials recently held two open houses so those interested could learn more about the program, Brooks said.
As for Reese, it’s unclear when he’ll be called to the scene of yet another tragedy. But when that happens, he said, he will be ready to respond.
“I don’t want to sound morbid, but I like helping people even if sometimes there is a death,” he said. “I have the impression that this is part of my vocation for the community. “