Q & A with Sr. Therese Bangert, providing comfort in times of loss

by Soli Salgado

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There is no syllabus on how to be a chaplain for the police and fire departments in Kansas City, Kansas, said Charity Sr. Therese Bangert.

But now that she's been a volunteer chaplain for more than 20 years, Bangert has learned what it means to be called to the scene of a homicide, suicide or natural death. What's expected of her once she's at the scene of the death, she said, is "as unique as the scene."

In conversation with Global Sisters Report, Bangert talked about what the job entails, what she took away from the murder of a Kansas City police detective, and the privilege of bearing witness to law enforcement's journey.

GSR: Describe the job of police/fire chaplain.

Bangert: The chaplaincy role is a volunteer role. The police department provides an automobile, and the chaplains who participate take turns taking the beeper.

When you have the beeper, you're on call 24/7. For the first 17 or 18 years, I carried the beeper 48 hours a month, but I don't carry the beeper anymore. Like at the time of Detective [Brad] Lancaster's murder last summer, I participated in different levels, but I do not carry the beeper anymore. You can be called anytime during those 48 hours, day or night, and you respond to what they request of you.

The chaplain might have the beeper five days in a row, might have it 60 hours. Not everyone can be a chaplain, because when you're on, you're on; you can't go off on your own to some place. You have to stay in the community and need to respond when the beeper goes off, so some people have been very faithful to this ministry. At this point, I'm the only Catholic involved.

The ordinary things that police chaplains are called for are when there's been a homicide, so we can be called to the actual scene, or we could be called to the hospital where the deceased person has been taken. We also can be called if there's a suicide or a natural death.

What do you do when you're called?

As one of the first chaplains who taught me said, "Sister, I get a knot in the pit of my stomach every time that beeper goes off, and I say to God, 'I will get myself there, and you have to take over from there.' " It is totally unique. I have been at homicide scenes where there's a gathering of 30 people from the community, including relatives of the person who's been killed. You see if there's a way to talk to someone and to answer people's questions, or to just be with them or pray with them, but it is individual, every case, every scene. I tell people there's a lot to learn about God and Jesus and the Spirit at those scenes. I look for the person who would be open to talking to me so that I can find out something besides the names of people.

Is part of your responsibility to be there for the fire fighters or police officers, as well?

My experience has been that it's for both. It's always a ministry of presence. In some way you're identified as chaplain, whether it's a jacket or shirt or tag around our neck. At the time of Detective Lancaster's murder, then the ministry of presence came to be with those in the family of blue, as they call the police family.

Though every case is unique, what would you describe as a typical responsibility for chaplains?

For me, a chaplain is somebody who listens. And that listening goes beyond words: you're listening to the scene, and you're watching what people's responses are, and whether there's a path to be able to talk to someone. It's a very intense time, so you do not want to make things more intense. At the same time, if there's a way to add some peace, you want to do that. And you don't want to be invasive as somebody who doesn't know them. One of our very important tasks is to see if the family, the people involved, have a connection in the faith community, and if they have a church, a pastor, and ask if they would like that pastor called, and then you absent yourself when that person comes.

At times, we can help with questions about why it takes so long to remove the body from a scene. One of the hardest questions always to answer, because people are so intense about, is, "Why can't I go up to the body of my loved one?" or "Why can't I touch the body of my loved one?" That's really difficult for families of victims.

What previous experience did you have that helped prepare you for this job?

I've been going into the prison since 1973 and jails here in Wyandotte County on a regular basis, and in Topeka, I led a worship service for 23 years. The foundation of all my chaplaincy work has been my clinical pastoral education that I had in Topeka State Hospital back in '82, '83, which is an intensive group process of looking at how you minister, and others give you feedback. That's been very important. Another foundational thing was my work for nine years with children in children's homes; I was their teacher and their child care worker or parenting figure, and those kids teach you an extremely lot. Thirdly, I lived in the area in Kansas City, Kansas, area for 19 years where there was violence, and poverty comes before violence.

What did you learn about these professions that you could only learn firsthand? What surprised you?

I certainly have a deeper appreciation for the work of police in our community; it's a calling just like mine. The people who most interact with the poor are the police officers. I had one of the officers say recently that nobody leaves this job without PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], because the human person was not made to see the kinds of things we see daily. That's not meant in any way to condone the police officers that are not good, and I tell them I pray for them to be safe and pray for them not to lose their compassion, because their spirits are battered day after day.

You've written about how the 2016 murder of Detective Lancaster was a teachable moment. What did you learn?

I had another look into how closely knit those police detectives and the people they worked with, their support staff, are. How tough it is to lose one of their own. I heard the police chief [at the time] say at a gathering that when a police officer is killed in the line of duty, it makes everyone question the work that they're doing. So it's been a privilege just to walk that journey with them. At a gathering for families of victims, one of the leaders in the department said, 'We have a new empathy with you this year because of our loss of Detective Lancaster.' I think to watch them learn and be privileged to hear their own reflections is a gift.

I also never heard anyone criticize or say Detective Lancaster's wife made the wrong decision in accepting the plea to life in prison without parole and taking death penalty off the table. I've worked the death penalty issue since 1987, so to witness her response to the terrible loss of her husband ... I don't know why she made that choice, I'm not privy to that, but she made it, and I never heard one police officer criticize that.

What about memorable experiences from the fire department?

I only had one call from the fire department in all my years, and it was when a 3-year-old boy died in a fire. Not a fun call. I can still remember his little brother wanting to know where he was. There are not usually victims with the fire department. It's rare for somebody to die in a fire. If we get called out, it's something big, but we do serve them if they ask us to.

What are you doing now? How has this experience stayed with you?

I lead social justice issues for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and have been involved in the Kansas Legislature since 1987. I call myself a low-paid lobbyist. I work on immigration issues, tax policy and death penalty issues that impact low-income families.

People say they want the death penalty to protect police officers, but I know the statistics that more police officers die by suicide than by homicide. So if we really do care about them, what kind of support systems are we providing for them? For me, it's a deeper dive into the community, to see grieving loved ones who go with the name of someone who has 2 inches in the paper about their death, to see where those deaths happen. I never go to those homicide scenes where my own spirit isn't bruised, especially if it's a 14-year-old girl or 16-year-old boy; it's just so distressing. And to believe deeply that God's mercy and God's love is there, and God's peers are there.

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]