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Vermont police chaplain loses position after outside pressure

In his role as a chaplain, Pete Taraski served as a counselor in various emergencies, including car accidents. Photo courtesy of The New Era/Lebanon Local, Sweet Home, Ore.

MONTPELIER, VT. (BP) – Pete “Chap” Taraski’s first six months in Vermont’s state capital has included challenges, both as pastor of Resurrection Baptist Church and a conservative Christian leader in one of the country’s most progressive enclaves.

Not long after arriving last fall, Taraski reached out to community leaders to see if there was need for a chaplain. It’s a role he has filled in communities across the nation and a skill set the Montpelier Police Department coveted. Emboldened by the Defund the Police movement, locals had called for the MPD to focus more on de-escalation tactics.

Pete “Chap” Taraski dishes out food during a fundraiser for the family of a local log truck driver who died in a collision with another truck. Photo courtesy of The New Era/Lebanon Local, Sweet Home, Ore.

“Chaplaincy gets in your blood. You want to be a part of it,” Taraski said. “When I moved here, I wanted to get plugged in so I contacted various agencies. The police department and sheriff’s department both responded quickly. I decided to go with the police department. The chief is from Chicago and was familiar with the chaplain program. He was excited about it.”

In a March 9 Facebook post that included an announcement about using a less-lethal version of pepper spray, the MPD named Taraski as its new chaplain.

“Chaplains play a vital role in providing spiritual guidance to department members and their families as well as to those in the community who may wish for such services,” it read. “Chaplain Programs are secular in purpose and do not promote nor inhibit religion: they provide impartial comfort, support, and assurance during crisis events.

“The program is simply another resource or option where the department can provide care and services to those who may want it. MPD is looking forward to working with our new ‘Chap!’”

Chap Taraski gives a bottle of water during a fire department call. Photo courtesy of The New Era/Lebanon Local, Sweet Home, Ore.

Three days later, another announcement said Taraski would not be in the role “to avoid any further distractions or conflict within the community.”

In serving communities for 15 years, “distraction” and “conflict” had never been associated with Taraski. Not when he counseled grieving family members at a house fire. Not when standing with traumatized parents whose child had been run over by a truck.

“I’m usually the one trying to remind them how to breathe,” he said. “It’s no time for a Bible study.”

That comes from years of experience, but also the nearly 2,000 hours of training he’s received.

Never once has a grievance been filed against him. He’s used to compliments, thank you cards and appreciation letters from first responders and the community. He is certified through Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, the Federation of Fire Chaplains, the International Conference of Police Chaplains as well as other groups.

So why were his services no longer needed in Montpelier? An official reason hasn’t been made public.

Genesis Taraski gets some instruction on chaplaincy from her father, Pete “Chap” Taraski when the family lived in Sweet Home, Ore. Taraski family photo

Some in the community took issue with Taraski’s being a pastor, specifically a Baptist pastor. They said his own Facebook posts were evidence of his being homophobic, racist and anti-immigrant. Those last two charges came as a surprise to his wife of 27 years, Nelia, who was born in Mexico. It would also surprise their 16-year-old daughter, who is Mexican American.

Opponents were most vocal that Taraski, a chaplain, posted too much Scripture. They claimed it violated the separation of church and state.

“I was also labeled as a ‘Republican,’” he said. “I have no idea where that came from. I don’t claim either party.”

Taraski is a pastor, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that he would share Bible passages to his personal Facebook page. But his two roles are different and separate.

“The only time the pastoral side of me comes out is, at times, days after that dreadful 911 call and only if a family can’t afford to do a funeral … I’ll offer my services for free. I believe everyone should have a proper funeral, and I’ve done many.”

Vermont’s suicide rate exceeds that of the national average. Last fall the Center for Disease Control said the state has seen the highest percentage increase in the nation of drug overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Montpelier PD has been seeking assistance with interactions between officers and mentally ill people ever since August 2019, when … a local man known to have mental illness, was shot and killed by a police officer,” read an announcement in the Vermont Daily Chronicle about Taraski’s arrival to the chaplain role.

Resurrection Baptist Church, where Taraski is pastor, hasn’t gone unscathed. Its previous pastor committed suicide in his home a little more than a year before Taraski arrived. One week before his family moved from Oregon, a church member killed himself inside the church.

Montpelier wasn’t an escape for Taraski. He didn’t leave a bad situation in Oregon as chaplain with the Sweet Home Police Department, then with Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance.

He trained his replacement. Taraski worked with the Linn County Sheriff’s Department. He partnered with the state police, going along to car wreck scenes, to deliver death notices and debrief firefighters and EMTs after traumatic calls.

Taraski holds no ill will toward the MPD police chief. “He’s a great man in a difficult position,” he said. “We parted on good terms and I have a lot of respect for him. He’s in my heart.”

The pastor is more concerned with how the publicity can affect the church as well as his daughter, who is a student at the local high school but has attended remotely since the news became public.

“When Jesus calls you to something, you do it,” he said of moving his family across the country. He asked for others to pray for him and his family, for Resurrection Baptist Church and other conservative evangelical congregations facing similar judgement.

“A chaplain helps people in their time of need,” Taraski said. “The city did not come to me and ask my side of the story. They did not do any research or check any facts. They just made a quick decision.”