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A New Calling for Pastor: Police Work

Calvary Chapel clergyman says part-time duty puts him in touch with more people who need what he offers.


A few years ago, John Key took a long look at a banner announcing the opening of Calvary Chapel Pacific Coast. The congregation that once gathered at an elementary school in Seal Beach now had a new facility on Westminster Boulevard in Westminster.

But Key, a church staff member who lived in Westminster for 21 years, felt something more than joy when he looked at the sign. He had a strong desire to let the community know the church was more than just a building. Key asked himself: "How do we reach out?"

More than a year later, Key, who became an associate pastor at the church, discovered the answer in the Westminster Police Department's community ministers program.

He didn't become a police chaplain right away; instead, he prayed about it. Soon it became clear that being a police chaplain was an opportunity to get away from his full-time job that was "focused within the church building."

Since 1998, Key has been one of four chaplains who rotate monthlong on-call shifts and regularly ride along with officers. The team includes a fifth chaplain who speaks Vietnamese.

About 40% of U.S. police departments have chaplains. In Westminster, the program began in 1991.

Key, 47, finds the work fulfilling but difficult at times. He enjoys getting to know police officers and being able counsel them and people in distress. It is the calls to help families of suicide victims that disturb him most.

"It's rewarding that I'm able to be used in someone's life during a difficult time, but there are aspects of the job in which there is nothing to like about it," Key said. "Unfortunately, for the last 1 1/2 years, the majority of calls that I've had to go out on are for suicides."

Key has found that a chaplain's job can be one of extremes. When a beeper awakens him "out of a dead sleep," he said he can "hear the emotions" when police tell him about people in distress.

"Things can change real fast," he said. "One minute it's total serenity and the next minute it's total chaos."

Chaplain David Peterson, who has been with the department's chaplain team since it began, said Key shows tremendous interest in helping the community.

"He works very hard and is well received in the department," Peterson said.

Key chooses two nights each month, either a Thursday or Friday, to ride with an officer. He recalls a recent 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. shift when the evening seemed especially busy with drunken drivers.

During one arrest he found himself talking to an intoxicated woman, using the opportunity to interact, he said.

"I did not want to hang a Bible over her head," Key said. "I just wanted to let the girl know she had made some serious mistakes.

"I wanted to let her know that [her arrest] might be a wake-up call from God. I wanted to share the reality of the fact that there's a better way."

Key said the chaplain program is a little-known resource. The chaplains can provide follow-up counseling and service, he said.

"We could be used more within the community," he said. "We don't want to barge into people's lives. We just want to help them."

Alex Murashko can be reached at (714) 966-5974.

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