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Prof ready to take the heat as firefighter & chaplain

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Faculty members at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary wear many different hats, but few wear one hat that John Babler wears.

For six years Babler has served as associate professor of social work and ministry-based evangelism at Southwestern, but for the last two years he has proudly worn the hat of a firefighter.

Babler has seen the devastation of being on both sides of the ladder. On the one hand, he remembers the death of a good friend and volunteer firefighter, Brian Collins, who died tragically with two other firefighters on Feb. 15, 1999, while attempting to extinguish a fire at Precious Faith Temple in Lake Worth, Texas.

“I never started out to wear the hat of a firefighter, until after the tragic loss of the three firefighters in 1999,” Babler said. Collins had taught one of Babler’s daughters in Sunday school and another daughter in choir at Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

Babler also wears the hat of evangelist and minister.

Serving at Birchman Baptist as chairman of the missions committee and as a seminary professor, he has had ample opportunity to do ministry. After seeing the faces of the firefighters at the deadly church fire, he knew he needed to do something. That is when, Babler said, “God kindled an interest in my heart as a fire chaplain.

“I explored the possibilities with the fire chief of the volunteer fire department in Edgecliff Village,” Babler said. “Options were given to me of being just a chaplain or being a firefighter/chaplain. I felt for credibility [with the firefighters, it was important] to come in as firefighter and chaplain and to train with the guys.”

Over the past two years Babler has worked up to the rank of lieutenant, even serving as an incident commander at a recent train derailment. More importantly he has developed relationships with the firefighters in his department.

“There is a close-knit brotherhood,” Babler said. “That is one reason I wanted to be a firefighter and be a fire chaplain — so I am on their turf, unlike other evangelistic programs I have been in.”

As a firefighter, Babler said he is able to be at the heart of the crisis at the time the need arises.

“I also try to serve the community,” Babler said, recounting a time he was on an engine that responded to a trauma call. “The resident we responded to had a heart attack and died. I then changed hats, put my chaplaincy hat on, and went with them to the hospital. I was able to tell the family he had the best care possible, and there was not the, ‘Gosh it took 10 minutes for the crew to get there,’ because we were on scene.”

Babler and 158 fire chaplains and others thinking of becoming chaplains from across the United States and Canada participated in the Federation of Fire Chaplains annual conference Oct. 20-25 in Fort Worth. They honored firefighters who died in the past year at a memorial service at Birchman Baptist Oct. 23.

Typically 100 to 120 firefighters die in the line of duty each year, Babler said. However this year on Sept. 11, three times that number were killed in a matter of minutes in New York City.

“Since Sept. 11,” Babler said, “I am emphasizing more of the chaplain part of firefighting.” He has started weekly Bible studies with his fellow firefighters and had six men at the first meeting. “I was very pleased,” he said. “One of the guys is going to get married in the spring, and I will have the privilege of performing the service.”

Babler said he wishes more seminary students would become involved as fire chaplains, “but the problem is the tight-knit community of firefighters. To be a chaplain with the police or fire department, a student will need to gain credibility and respect with the firefighters.

“The great thing about our department is it is close to the seminary, and a student could come on and be a part of the department,” Babler commented. “Then when they leave seminary they will have experience in working in and with firefighters.”

Babler also is part of a newly formed group called the North Texas Fire and Police Chaplains Association. The NTFPC represents about 30 fire and police chaplains in north Texas and is organizing in case a serious tragedy happens in the region.

“This way we know what our resources are and are able to call on each other in the event of a tragedy,” Babler noted.

Being a chaplain is more than being there, the seminary professor reflected. It is connecting with the people who are in need of ministry. “It is like any ministry — God called me to this and he receives the glory.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JOHN BABLER.

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  • Richard McCormack