A Different Kind Of Collar

Here is the article that was in the T&G a few days ago:

By Kristin Geyer SPECIAL TO THE TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

WORCESTER —  With a bulletproof vest hidden under a dark polo shirt, the Rev. Aaron Payson responds to a recent police call in the wee hours of the morning.

Shielding his face is a baseball cap with one word in bold: Clergy.

When most of the city is asleep, Rev. Payson surveys Worcester from a police cruiser.

“That is the time when the most critically violent things often happen,” said Rev. Payson, who rides along with Worcester police officers on patrol from 11 p.m. to about 4 a.m., every four to six weeks, as a member of the Worcester Clergy/Police Community Partnership.

On one of these ride-alongs, Rev. Payson, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester, knew he was needed at a suicide call.

“I was on a ride-along and it was 7 a.m. when the person was discovered,” he said. “I essentially went with the family, and the (police officer) I was riding with did what he needed to do. I intersected in between.”

In times of crisis, when police must follow protocol at a crime scene, clergy are able to step in with their working knowledge of police procedure.

“Families don’t define a suicide as a crime scene; (to them) it’s a tragedy,” Rev. Payson said. “Being able to gently explain to them before these things start to happen why they’re doing what they’re doing helps to ease those tensions, and allows them to concentrate on grieving.”

In the summer of 2007, Worcester Police Chief Gary Gemme saw the need to address increased violence in the city by promoting relationships between police and the community. In partnership with the Black Clergy Alliance, Chief Gemme used a Fort Worth, Texas, program called Uniting Clergy and Police as a model to form the Worcester Clergy/Police Community Partnership. It is the only alliance of its kind in New England.To prepare for the partnership, 21 clergy members completed an eight-week academy in February 2008. With a new group of 13 clergy members, the second Worcester Clergy/Police Academy began Sept. 22. They will train through November. Topics include constitutional and criminal law, use of force, domestic violence, sexual assault, gangs, vice squad and community impact.

In the opening session, program coordinator Sgt. John Lewis said the training would give clergy “a better understanding of how we save lives, because sometimes saving lives is just interaction.”

Along with the academy sessions, clergy attend monthly meetings and participate in ride-alongs and critical incident response.“Your talents, your gifts are not just welcomed, they’re necessary,” said Rev. Payson, welcoming the new members.

Rev. Payson said he was inspired to participate in the program “because I think it has a direct impact on the way in which the community can bring together resources that would otherwise be non-communicative.”

With a community as diverse as Worcester, lines of communication sometimes blur between cultures. Clergy in the partnership represent Baptist, Lutheran, Unitarian, Methodist, Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Reform Jewish congregations. About 28 percent of city residents speak another language besides English, and 15 percent of residents are foreign born, the Census Bureau says.

“We have a big immigrant population,” said the Rev. Gregory Christakos of St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Cathedral, talking about his congregation. Immigrants often have a different view of police than Americans, he said.

“For example, if you’re from a former communist country and the police are corrupt there … you may not trust the police,” he said.

Rev. Christakos aims to be a liaison to the police for immigrants who feel that way about police.

Another academy participant, the Rev. Steven Barrett of Christ the Rock Fellowship, also understands that cultures have different views of law enforcement.

“We naturally think of them in a certain way — ‘The policeman is your friend,’ — and someone from another culture may not have that,” he said.

“What we have, I think, is the mindset or the natural inclination to come alongside people in crisis,” Rev. Barrett said. “The police are often, by the nature of their job, the authority (in a situation); they’re there to keep a lid on things or to stop things. They may want to help, but in their role they may not be able to as easily.”

Clergy may be able bridge the communication gap and the partnership may establish a greater confidence in what police do, he said.

Rev. Barrett knows the differences between the roles of police and clergy, but said the combined approach is most effective.

“We have the same mission here. Their job, their goal, is to make the community a safer and better place to live, and that is right in line with what we (clergy) would desire for the community as well,” Rev. Barrett said.

Even as a new member of the partnership, Rev. Christakos noted the important role clergy can play in a critical incident.

“I’m interested in a healthy society just like the police are,” he said, though he acknowledged his approach differs from that of police. “I try to approach everything with love. As an Orthodox priest, I’m trying to bring Christian love to a situation.”

Though he missed the first academy in 2008, Rev. Barrett began attending partnership meetings shortly after he arrived in Worcester in July 2009. He has found the academy programs informative. “I appreciated the thoroughness of the presentation. They’re giving us one department at a time and really getting in depth in what that particular part of the police force does,” he said.

“It’s like being in school again,” said Rev. Christakos, fanning out the scribbled pages of his leather notebook. “I’ve got blisters from writing so much.”

Originally published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette 10/26/10.

 

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