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Local pastor finds chaplaincy ‘opens doors’

A UMNS Feature
By Andrew J. Schleicher*
July 6, 2009

As a volunteer police chaplain, the Rev. Alex Vergara answers all kinds of calls, such as going to court on one occasion to help a teenager who had landed in trouble.

“A high school boy got arrested and went to court with other teenagers for driving with an open bottle,” Vergara says.

The Rev. Alex Vergara

The family asked him to help the boy, who was on his way to college, so Vergara spoke with the judge and got leniency for the teen. The chaplain recently joined the family in honoring the young man as he graduated magna cum laude.

A local pastor, he does his chaplaincy with the Honolulu Police Department. Many police and fire departments cannot afford to hire a chaplain full time, so they rely on the contributions of volunteers.

Vergara has been in ministry for 33 years. Since retiring from active ministry during the June 17-20 session of the California-Pacific Annual Conference, he plans to devote even more time to his chaplaincy work.

“It opens a lot of doors in the community,” he says.

The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry approves chaplains for volunteer work in a process similar to the endorsement process for full-time chaplains. There are 205 United Methodists approved for volunteer chaplaincies, with 1,236 endorsed chaplains, according to Tom Carter, director of endorsement with the board’s United Methodist Endorsing Agency.

Endorsed chaplains primarily work full time in the military and in medical institutions, or as pastoral counselors. Volunteer chaplains spend most of their time in local churches.

Vergara got involved as a volunteer chaplain when one of the Honolulu Police Department chaplains retired. He enjoyed the work so much that five years later he volunteered as a chaplain for the FBI and then became the first sheriff’s chaplain.

He is one of seven chaplains – six Christian and one Buddhist – serving the Honolulu Police force. He provides counseling, house blessings and other types of blessings for members of the department, and also conducts wedding services. In addition, he teaches stress management, ethics and integrity, and other courses at the police academy.

Challenging duties

While he has had a police chaplain car for the last decade, Vergara also rides along with officers during operations and sometimes is among the first responders to a shooting or other police call.

“In my 33 years, I have seen a lot of homicides," he says.

In those instances, Vergara is immediately on the scene to comfort the mourning.

The most difficult situations are suicides, he says. “My first suicide was a high school kid," he recalls. He also helps notify families of the deceased.

Vergara may be called to the scene of hostage situations as well. He works alongside psychologists in providing assistance. For example, he helped arrange for a church to make space available for a negotiating team when a man had barricaded himself in his car with his girlfriend.

Help is needed

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More volunteers are always needed. “I encourage pastors to take a look at their local police departments to see if there is a need," Vergara says.

Carter says elders and deacons interested in volunteer chaplaincy should check with other organizations and agencies as well. “The important thing is their ability to provide ministry to people in crisis and stress,” he says.

More information about the chaplaincy is available by contacting Carter at (615) 340-7411 or tcarter@gbhem.org, or visiting www.gbhem.org/chaplains.

*Schleicher is a writer and editor living in Nashville, Tenn. This story first appeared in longer form at www.gbhem.org, the site of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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