Four black men in a sedan were described by the 911 dispatcher. Joe* took the call and I was riding along.
Upon arrival, blue and red lights were already flashing. The cops were white and I was watching. When I got out of the cruiser, "Chaplain, get back in the car!" boomed through the night.
On calls, there is usually a cop who takes the lead: a cowboy or cowgirl. Other cops know, by training and instinct, to follow the leader.
My heart sank as the cowboy and his crew patted down, collected identification and handcuffed the four. Race pinned Christianity to the mat as concern for the four overwhelmed me.
A handcuffed black man was placed in the seat behind me.
"You're just going to sit there? You see the way they're treating us, officer. Say something to them! What kind of cop are you?"
"I couldn't see much. Tell me what happened."
He began to share a story that was nothing like what I imagined. There were women, silently watching from an apartment window, involved. He had a chronic condition and needed the medication in the bags being searched. He was from my hometown.
"Say more," was my involuntary response to Tony's* story. Empathy smothered me as he continued, in handcuffs, with a cage separating us.
I listened because that was all I could do. Interfering with police work is a no-no for chaplains, but police work is enhanced by chaplains. We ask questions that may normally go unconsidered; listen to frustrated citizens tell their sides of the story; tend to the people rendered invisible at crime scenes; show up in black skin to connect with black men.
Tony's friends had their own stories. One had an unregistered gun on his ankle, another under the seat: jail. Another had warrants in neighboring counties: jail. The third was released.
Tony and I watched in silence as Joe came back to the cruiser. Tony's name, story and record checked out: the cuffs came off. I had a flashlight and joined Joe's searches for the needed medication. The car had been aggressively searched and nothing was where it should have been.
Tony would be able to go to work in the morning but was advised to think about his affiliation with the women in the window.
On our way to the next call, Joe and I talked. We spoke of race pinning faith; of a cowboy protecting me from guns I couldn't see; of Jesus' innocence and wrongful death; of black men and white cops; of shady women and foolish men; of a broken criminal justice system.
We spoke of the Cross of Jesus and His invitation to daily pick up our crosses and follow as disciples.
Joe asked, "So, is the chaplaincy your cross?"
"Great question, Joe. Would you like to know more about the Cross?"
Joe's nod was permission for me to begin sharing the story of Jesus' life, work and gift of eternal life through death on the Cross. By faith in the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead, I believe the Lord can grow the seeds of truth planted in Joe's heart and mind that night.
He's still on the road and has more seniority now. Sometimes he's the cowboy and younger cops follow his lead. Our prayer is that they follow Joe's lead as Joe takes up his cross to follow Jesus.
* Not real name