The day I spent riding shotgun in a cop car is one I’ll never forget.
It wasn’t so much the thrill of going on calls, the wailing of the siren or “booking ’em.” (Besides, I’m pretty sure only one person was booked that day.) The real marvel was in watching my big brother do the work he’s called to do.
My brother and I haven’t lived near one another since he joined the military when I was a little kid. But I remember when he was still in high school and he loved riding around with the cops in our small town as part of a program that let qualified students do on-the-job training.
That day I rode a shift with him, I recognized this was a true calling. The incident that stays with me involved a complaint about an elderly man who was making threats to others and himself. We pulled up to a trailer and found a skinny, unkempt man raving outside. My brother ordered me to stay in the car, but I cracked the window open to hear what was going on. With a steady presence and soothing voice, addressing the man with deference and respect, my brother calmed him. Within seconds of gently cuffing him, he then pulled from somewhere on the man a hefty-sized knife. The man ranted all the way to the station and through booking, yet my brother’s composure never broke.
My brother is a Christian. For him, being a cop is the way he feels best able to serve God and his neighbor. Since we live far apart I don’t see my brother much, yet he’s been on my mind a lot with the recent fatal shootings by and of police officers. So when my own county sheriff recently invited my community to come pray for and with our local law enforcement officers and other public safety officials, I knew I had to go.
The vigil drew an impressive number of folks for a small, rural county like ours. (Population: 32,000.) The plain, low building that houses the sheriff’s office and jail was too small to hold the crowd, so we gathered outside. Melting under the July afternoon sun, we joined hands and prayed together for our community and those called to protect it.
Sheriff E.W. Viar began the vigil by acknowledging the tension and acts of violence across the country that have been tearing communities apart. “We serve to protect everyone, no matter what race or nationality,” he said. “Please keep us all in your prayers as well as our country. We all do the same for all of you.”
This gathering—following so much anger, fear, destruction and despair—touched me.
Viar’s two-fold profession—that he needs his community’s prayer and that his force was praying for the community—was moving in its humility and simplicity. I decided to ask him later, via email, what he wished everyone understood about policing, especially in these days of Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.
“We have to be counselors, mediators, give advice, protect property, investigate crimes and risk our lives to save the life of others,” he responded. “When a terrible crisis hits, when someone is shooting, or any other situation where most people are running to safety, we can't say we are not going into harm’s way. We have to go to the threat and try and eliminate it.” Then he quoted John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than to lay down his life for his friend.”
Our small rural county is fairly insulated from much of the crime that threatens larger communities. So I asked Viar if he thought there was anything big cities and sprawling suburbs could learn from small-town cops. “I strongly believe that we as law enforcement need to go out and meet the citizens in our communities," he answered. "We can also partner with our churches to have community meetings and dialogues to learn from them their concerns. I believe that our communities will back our law enforcement in a time of crisis if they are kept informed and we make sure we are held accountable, too.”
The prayer vigil itself modeled his philosophy, as various pastors, chaplains and lay ministers —both black and white, some working in law enforcement themselves—took the podium to pray for the safety of both officers and citizens. One pastor reminded the crowd that “we need to work in harmony together."
It’s easy to be cynical about the cultural Christianity that infuses life in the Bible Belt like hot water in a cup of tea. But this gathering—following so much anger, fear, destruction and despair—touched me. Members of my own family are in law enforcement. And another member of my family is a young black man. I don’t want to lose any of them.
My brother works in a high-crime area and has been involved in numerous shoot-outs and hostage situations. Yet when I asked him how he sees his job as a ministry, he talked about the work he does during court and home visits in DUI cases, helping perpetrators make progress toward sobriety. “I have been thanked by many of the individuals I’ve arrested and booked for the way I have treated them,” he said. “What I’ve said made them realize they have a problem or an addiction and that they need help.” In situations with less positive outcomes, he serves by being the one to comfort family members when he is called to the scene too late.
For the Christian who is a cop, the police beat can be a mission field—a grueling and dangerous one at that. As Sheriff Viar told me, “Every time we put on our badge and uniform, you never know if you will be coming home after the shift.”
For those of us feeling helpless as we watch the roiling tension over law enforcement destroy so many lives, both blue and black, prayer may not be the only thing we can offer. But it might be the most important.