Helping families find solace

The mother of 17-year-old Jesse Maynor III was at work when she met Linda Koelman last winter.

Koelman was nervous. She always is before a notification.

After making sure she was talking to the right person, Koelman told the mother Jesse had been shot twice with a shotgun and died. The mother cried hysterically.

After eight years spent as a volunteer chaplain for the Minneapolis Police Department, Koelman said the job hasn’t gotten any easier.

“You never know how people are going to react,” Koelman said. “Not knowing how they’re going to react or if it is the right person can be a little frightening and you do get nervous. The nervousness doesn’t go away.”

Koelman, pastor at North United Methodist Church in North Minneapolis, is among eight active Minneapolis Police Department chaplains who volunteer to be on call 48-hours a month or more to notify families of homicide, suicide and accident victims and provide immediate assistance.

Chaplains respond to crime scenes, homes and sometimes workplaces to make notifications. They offer families sympathy, compassion, spiritual guidance and information about the police investigative procedure, the funeral arrangement process, counseling options and other services.

Chaplains also make themselves available to work with police personnel who need someone to talk to.

Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Stewart, who oversees the Minneapolis police chaplains, said chaplains are often associated with bad news, but their real mission is to provide support in a time of crisis.

Answering a call

All of the Minneapolis chaplains are ordained ministers who went through 12 to 18 hours of intense training, Stewart said.

The training covers death notifications, crisis counseling, victim services, ethics, the police world, how different cultures deal with death and more. Not everyone can follow through with such training or the job that follows it.

“We don’t do it because we’re making anything, it’s not to get rich,” Stewart said. “We do it because it’s a calling.”

V.J. Smith, a pastor at Shiloh Temple at Broadway and Fremont Avenues and director of Men Against Destruction Defending Against Drugs and Social-disorder (MADDADS), said he was called to be a chaplain about a year ago after MADDADS had responded to a number of families dealing with traumatic situations, he said.

Smith said the tremendous feeling that comes from helping people at possibly the worst moments in their lives keeps him going.

“I give people a sign of hope when the feeling is that there is no hope,” he said. “A lot of times people remember you and thank you and you’re glad to be a part of their lives.”

Rev. Paul Eknes-Tucker of All God’s Children in South Minneapolis became a chaplain two years ago to get in touch with the greater community and said he has also found the job rewarding.

“I feel like it’s an important service, and I’ll go the extra mile to make sure it’s done with care,” he said.

Notifying with care

Chaplains say there is no good way to tell someone a loved one has died, but there are guidelines to follow.

After a chaplain arrives at a crime scene or home and gives an introduction, the first thing they do is ask for identification of the residents to make sure they are notifying the correct people. If the names and relationship to the victim are correct, the chaplain might ask family members to sit down before the notification is made.

The message that someone has died has to be clear, Eknes-Tuker said. Words like “passed” should not be used.

“It’s important for people to grasp the reality of the death,” he said.

Chaplains also need to be prepared for a variety of reactions — some people do nothing, many cry, others become violent.

Eknes-Tuker and other chaplains occasionally encounter language barriers, which can create an enormous amount of frustration because the chaplain doesn’t know if the message is getting through correctly. The Minneapolis Police Department hopes to gain chaplains who can break those barriers in years to come.

Minneapolis Police chaplains said they stay in touch with families for as long as is needed.

A family doesn’t have to be religious to receive guidance from a chaplain, Stewart said. Chaplains are meant to provide support regardless of a person’s religious or cultural background.

Chaplains said they always mention the Victim Intervention Program, Inc. (VIPI), a nonprofit program that works closely with Minneapolis Police to provide immediate and long-term support for families of homicide, suicide and accident victims.

Sometimes chaplains will connect families with their local pastor. If the police chaplain on duty happens to be a family’s pastor or knows them somehow, another chaplain is called to the scene to represent the Police Department.

Working with police

In some situations, police have to make death notifications, said Rich Stanek, captain of the criminal investigations division for homicides, gangs and narcotics.

But it’s always preferable to have a chaplain available since police do not receive the same training when it comes to dealing with grieving families. At a crime scene, police are often too busy trying to figure out what happened to spend much time comforting the victim’s family.

“My job is to make sure the scene is safe and secure for other responders,” Stanek said. “And to make sure the scene is large enough to recover evidence. Third are the individuals at the scene.”

Stanek said chaplains are capable of calming a rowdy scene, which helps officers and the victim’s family. Chaplains often work as liaisons among the medical examiner, police and family members at a crime scene.

When going to a home to notify a family of a homicide, police always accompany chaplains because of the possibility, that they might be actual of notifying the murder suspect.

The police-chaplain relationship also extends beyond the notification process. Sometimes police personnel speak to chaplains about their own personal problems, either at home or at work.

Lt. Marie Przynski of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 5th Precinct said Koelman helped her cope with her mother’s death last year.

“I had never had to plan a funeral or contact family members,” Przynski said. “But Linda was there, saying ‘I’m here for you.’”

Being there

Anita McCoy, who was Anita Penn when her son Jesse was killed, cried loudly when Koelman told her the news.

Tears flooded her eyes. She couldn’t breathe.

“I was very crazy,” McCoy said. “It’s very hard. Very hard to hear that.”

Days later, Koelman visited McCoy’s home. McCoy remembers thinking Koelman was the last person she wanted to talk to or see, but the chaplain wasn’t out of her life yet.

Koelman was at Jesse’s wake and she attended the funeral as well.

Koelman said she just wanted to show she cared.

More than half a year later, McCoy is grateful.

“She had tears in her eyes when she was talking to me (about Jesse),” McCoy said. “I think she did a wonderful job.”

McCoy volunteered to share her experience with Koelman with the Southwest Journal. Normally, victim conversations with chaplains are confidential.

Jake Weyer can be reached at jweyer@mnpubs.com and 436-4367.