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His ministry to the grieving begins with delivering police death notice

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Jack Miller does what most others would rather not do.

Miller, who graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in December, delivers death notifications for the Louisville police department’s chaplaincy unit.

It’s the one part of his position that Miller doesn’t like. Since taking the role of chaplain in December 1999, the Ansted, W.Va., native has delivered more than 65 death notifications to family members of those who have been murdered, died in an accident or committed suicide.

Miller’s position gives him the opportunity to counsel the grieving and share the gospel with the lost. He wears a pager throughout the week, knowing that at any time he could be asked to deliver bad news to a family he has never met.

“You’re in a race,” he said. “You’re in a race with the phone lines. You’re in a race to tell the family before somebody [else] breaks it to them.”

He said that each notification has been tough.

“To that one person, that’s a life-changing event,” he said. “Anytime you don’t remember that when you go on one of these calls, you need to quit right there.”

Miller is one of nine chaplains with the department. A Southern Baptist, he works alongside chaplains with Episcopalian, Methodist and Church of Christ backgrounds.

Tom Mobley is the coordinator of chaplains. During a typical week, Mobley and his men will deliver death notifications, counsel family members at the scene of an accident or crime, visit family members of victims in the hospital, perform funerals and weddings and minister to police officers.

“We try to be open about the fact that the chaplaincy is a values-based service that is provided by the department,” Mobley said. “If you come to us, you’re going to be coming to someone who is going to be working with you from a values-based system.”

Miller’s route to the Louisville police department began in 1997, when he and his wife moved to the city. Miller felt called to seminary, although he did not know what type of ministry to undertake. He soon began serving as a chaplain at a local hospital.

During one night at the hospital, Miller counseled the family of a drug dealer who had been shot. Miller said that approximately 30 family members were at the hospital when the man died.

“It was just chaos for about four hours,” he said, describing the emotional state of the family.

A Louisville police chaplain at the hospital was impressed with Miller’s ministry to the family.

“When it was all done, he said, ‘You were pretty good in there. You ought to call the coordinator of chaplains downtown,'” Miller said.

Miller went through a chaplaincy course at the police department in the fall of 1999 and started soon thereafter. Several months later he also joined the police department at West Buechel — a town a few miles southeast of downtown Louisville — as a chaplain and a police officer.

“I can see why this would not appeal to people,” Miller said. “Every time I get a call [for a death notification], I really do hate it. I hate it because I know somebody’s dead. But the other side of this kind of ministry is [that] you get to share a lot of time with the officers, and that’s good. And I have a desire [to minister to] police officers.”

Miller’s position provides for some interesting and dangerous moments. Some of his time is spent riding around with officers between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m., when the majority of crimes occur.

On one occasion — when he was riding around with a police officer who was checking on a 911 hang-up — Miller found himself in the midst of a scuffle.

“He knocked on the door and asked. ‘What’s the problem here?’ The guy said, ‘There’s no problem,’ and he shoved the officer.”

Miller and the officer proceeded to wrestle the man to the ground. They later learned he was on crack cocaine.

“This guy was a little wirey,” Miller said. “We were trying to cuff him, and it took six men to do that. We were out there wrestling and rolling around in the dirt. The other police officers show up, and they’re kind of laughing at me. Here I am, the chaplain, rolling around.”

Miller said such incidents give him even more respect for police officers.

“Stuff like that happens to these guys every night,” he said. “I might just be out once or twice a week, and these guys are doing it five or six nights a week. … These guys ride around all night long and all they see are drug dealers. All they see are people that are going to lie to them.”

Occasionally, the officers will ask Miller questions.

“They’ll ask you, ‘Why are people the way they are?’ General things like that,” he said. “What they’re really saying is, ‘Well, let me tell you what I think.’ And that’s where the ministry starts. It takes a while to get these guys to trust you. It really does. … If I press it, I’ll say [the answer is] the sin of man, evil that’s in our heart, rebellion against God.”

Miller said he has to guard against developing a cold heart. Before delivering a death notification, he prays for strength.

“You pray while you go [to the scene],” he said. “If you stop and pray you’re not going to get there.”

Once at the house, he knocks on the door and breaks the news.

“I’ll say, ‘There’s been an accident’ or ‘There’s something really bad that we need to talk about.’ Right then — nine times out of 10 — they’ll know who it is,” he said. “After that, you talk with them a little bit. You ask about the person that’s dead, and it’ll start the grieving process. That’s really what you’re trying to do. You really don’t say a whole lot. You really don’t have to. Of course, they’re going to ask you questions — how did they die, who did it.”

Occasionally, families will ask Miller to come back for further counseling and to perform the funeral.

“Most of these people are not saved,” he said. “That kind of witnessing-type of conversation really comes in follow-up. I had one really long follow-up period after my first suicide [notification]. The family asked me to do the funeral, and I followed up on it.”

Because the chaplaincy is only part-time, Miller is looking for a fulltime ministry position. A master of divinity graduate, he may go into the pastoral ministry and perform chaplain duties on the side.

“I’m pretty open,” he said. “I would like to stay in law enforcement ministry. I really like it.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JACK MILLER.

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  • Michael Foust