Spirituality on the streets
In Chicago, police chaplains help the city’s officers recognize the value of their work and see God’s presence
BY DANIEL P. SMITH
Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more. (Romans 5:20)
Just before 8 p.m. on a wintry Wednesday in Chicago, three words pouring from a police radio seize the attention of Fr. Dan Brandt: infant, unattended, vehicle.
Fr. Brandt and his companion on these regular Wednesday night expeditions, Deacon Bob Montelongo, a 23-year Chicago police veteran, drive toward the reported address, a grocery store parking lot in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood.
Upon arriving, the Catholic priest, director of the Chicago Police Chaplains Ministry, steps out of his car. He extracts a flashlight from his bulletproof vest and steps toward the red sedan with a running engine. He shines a light in the backseat, stares in, and shakes his head.
Seconds later, a Chicago police SUV pulls up behind Fr. Brandt’s gray Ford. One patrol officer exits and begins conversing with Deacon Montelongo before the two march into the neighborhood market; another makes a beeline for the red car’s passenger side. He pulls on the rear door handle, then the front door handle. Confined to the outside looking in, he focuses his eyes on the 1-year-old girl sleeping in her infant carrier. A single stroke of light cuts across her face.
“Do you have children?” Fr. Brand tasks.
His eyes remaining fixated on the infant, the officer nods. Fr. Brandt knows this is not the first time — nor will it be the last — this officer has seen a child neglected, innocence unnecessarily put at risk. It’s the officer’s job, of course, but it’s death to the soul by a thousand cuts.
When Deacon Montelongo emerges from the grocery store, the infant’s mother walks in front of him. She opens the sedan’s rear door, pulls her daughter from the car seat, and tosses the girl onto her hip.
“There,” she barks at the assembled crowd.
“There?” the once-silent officer charges back. “Do you know how many calls we get of cars being stolen with children in them? Why would you put her at risk like this? We’re protecting her. We’re helping you.”
Defiant and irritated, the mother rolls her eyes.
“Take your little girl with you and care for her. She needs you,” the officer directs before storming off to his police SUV.
After some additional conversation with the mother, the gathered officers disperse to their respective cars. Fr. Brandt, however, veers toward the officer sitting in the SUV’s passenger seat. He hands him a pocket notebook. The front of the navy-blue book features a golden embossed Chicago Police Department star and asks officers to “remember Whom you really work for.” The back shares contact information for the Chicago Police Chaplains Ministry and a single sentence: “Your partner has your back, but we’ve got your soul.”
“God bless,” Fr. Brandt says to the officer, “and be safe.” For the last nine years, these have been Fr. Brandt’s Wednesday nights and Thursday mornings, navigating some of Chicago’s approximately 4,000 miles of streets and 1,900 miles of alleys for 12-16 hours, flowing from one of the city’s 22 police districts to the next. He travels toward any shots fired calls, well aware of the police presence and thoughts such events stir, and also frequents calls involving children, knowing the emotional toll those particular situations can inflict upon responding officers.
“I want these officers to know that they’re not alone, that their work is valued, that it has meaning and purpose,” Fr. Brandt says.
Seeing individuals victimized and vulnerable, encountering scrutiny, and rarely called to one’s finest moment, police inhabit a high-stress job. In the cities and towns, big and small, that pepper the American landscape, police chaplains like Fr. Brandt, who are often volunteers, tend to the spiritual and emotional health of officers.
“Kevlar for the soul,” Fr. Brandt calls it.
‘STANDING ON THE LINE OF GOOD AND EVIL’
Today, Fr. Tom Nangle is semiretired and living a quiet life in the woods of Wisconsin.
For more than 30 years, however, Fr. Nangle was the face of the Chicago Police Chaplains Ministry. He set the standard for Fr. Brandt to follow, including the weekly tours of duty central to the ministry’s mission.
“The shepherd should smell like the sheep,” Fr. Nangle says, echoing a refrain Pope Francis himself has spoken.
Fr. Nangle, as Fr. Brandt does today, provided traditional pastoral needs to Chicago’s officers, civilian employees, retirees, and their families. He officiated at weddings and gave last rites. He baptized children and counseled officers and family members. Most often, though, he was simply there, talking about baseball and family, laughing, offering hugs and handshakes intended to raise the spiritual and psychological well-being of officers amid the horrors they can encounter. He wanted them to see goodness in their profession, one that tasks them to ensure that order reigns in an all-too-often disorganized earthly world.
“If a police officer accepts that his work has a spiritual dimension, then it adds motivation, energy, and engagement, and those are powerful things in a job that needs it,” Fr. Nangle says. “If there’s no sense of the spiritual in police work, then it’s one of the worst jobs in America.”
Adds Fr. William Wentink, considered a founder of substantial police chaplaincy in the United States and the longtime — though now retired — chaplain for the Rockford, Illinois, Police Department: “The chaplain is there to let police officers know they’re standing on the line of good and evil and making a difference in people’s lives.”
Fr. Nangle recalls a group of Chicago detectives working 37 straight hours after a toddler was fatally shot while riding her big wheel bike. Fr. Nangle saw the work consume detectives. He looked in their bloodshot eyes. He saw them subsist on caffeine and resolve and, for some, urgent prayer.
“It was personal for them because each of them had their own big wheel at home,” Fr. Nangle says. “I’d have to remind them: ‘Do you know how proud God is of this work?’”
While some do, many don’t.
The tolls of the job — seeing suffering and victimization, contempt and cold-bloodedness — can consume one’s ability to see goodness in the world and most certainly lead one to question the existence of a benevolent God.
“Not a week went by that I didn’t hear an officer say, ‘You know, Father, you won’t believe it, but I pray every day,’” Fr. Nangle recounts. “And I do believe it. Being the police, seeing what they see, it either intensifies your relationship with your creator or diminishes it.”
As police chaplain, Fr. Nangle saw it as his duty to remind officers “that there are moments in their day that God notices,” something he believed deepened engagement with their work, their fellow humans, and their maker.
THE GOOD GUYS
Just after 9 p.m., Fr. Brandt and Deacon Montelongo pull in front of a three-flat in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Two Chicago patrol officers stand with a man on the front porch.
Inside, a toddler clutches a sippy cup, an 8-year-old girl sits on a couch, and a mother sweeps broken glass into a plastic dustpan. Against a wall, a 10-year-old boy named Alexander shivers in green pajamas featuring imagery of crime-fighting turtles.
Just minutes prior, Alexander’s Tecate-fueled stepfather stormed through the apartment. Angry, loud, and violent, his voice rose. So did his hands. Alexander called 911.
Fr. Brandt approaches Alexander and places his hand on the young boy’s shoulder. He looks the boy in his watery eyes.
“You did the right thing, young man,” Fr. Brandt assures. “You protected your mom and sisters.”
As Fr. Brandt speaks, two patrol officers cut across the dining room carrying a flat-screen television pulled from the stepfather’s trunk. In a back room, they reinstall the television and its video game system. Fr. Brandt hopes Alexander sees these officers as the good guys, men who replaced the chaos with calm.
‘GOD IS THE GREAT DISPATCHER’
Ordained in 1999, Fr. Brandt spent his first 12 years in parish ministry. While so much of that work energized him and he never imagined anything but parish life, Fr. Brandt ultimately found himself questioning his role. He didn’t become a priest, he admitted, to deal with leaky roofs, teacher contracts, or disagreements about use of the church hall.
Under Fr. Brandt’s charge today, the Chicago Police Chaplains Ministry — Fr. Brandt, Rabbi Moshe Wolf, and fours worn chaplains (Joseph Jackson, Hysni Selenica, Kimberly Lewis-Davis, and Deacon Montelongo) assigned to the team — reaches some 12,000 current Chicago officers, approximately 1,000 civilian employees, and about 6,000 local retirees as well as their families. It’s demanding work that puts miles on Fr. Brandt’s car, consumes his waking hours, and tests his stamina. Yet those efforts also ignite a deeper connection to his faith and God’s plan.
“In this role,” the 49-year-old Fr. Brandt says of his police chaplaincy, “just about everything I do has purpose in it. It’s a rubber-hits-the-road ministry.”
Deacon Montelongo, ordained in 2012, nods in agreement. He begins recounting his recent visit to a Chicago rehab center, where an officer who had been shot in the head one month prior had not only survived but was slowly regaining his faculties.
“These are little miracles I’m witness to,” Deacon Montelongo says. “God is the great dispatcher. He puts us in the right place at the right time.”
Deacon Montelongo then shifts to detailing his encounter with a Chicago Police sergeant. A self-described atheist, the sergeant said the good he had seen from officers had compelled him to “doubt his disbelief.”
“How unbelievable is that?” asks Deacon Montelongo, clutching a cellphone that features a vibrant golden image of the Virgin Mary. “They’re seeing [that] God is present, working in us, even amid all the other challenges and nasty situations they’re facing.”
In a nation rooted in law-and-order ideals, Fr. Brandt believes it’s important to support those who protect our streets and serve our communities. He acknowledges that officers make mistakes— sometimes severe, incomprehensible, and even tragic decisions — and he has heard their most personal sins. Yet he remains devoted to his flock.
When police are enabled and supported, Fr. Brandt contends, they can provide peace and protection, resolution and calm, and deliver some of this world’s most noble-minded acts. They can be God’s emissaries in a world too often consumed by violence and neglect, pain and contempt.
“We see plenty of evil,” Fr. Brandt says of his time on Chicago’s streets, “but plenty of people doing God’s work, as well.”
‘HOW’S YOUR SOUL?’
It’s approaching midnight, and Fr. Brandt catches sight of a Chicago police patrol car parked on the east side of Halsted Street in the city’s Englewood neighborhood.
Fr. Brandt pulls alongside the car, and Deacon Montelongo rolls down the passenger side window. A Chicago police sergeant sits alone in the car, the overhead light on as he completes paperwork.
“How’s your soul, boss?” Fr. Brandt asks.
“Good — I hope,” the sergeant says with a chuckle. Deacon Montelongo reaches out his window with a pocket notebook. The sergeant grabs it and nods in appreciation. “Here if you ever need us, boss,” Fr. Brandt says. “Here if you ever need us.”