Thursday, July 3, 2014

Yes You Can -- John Owen and the Crisis Chaplain Corps

John Owen, singing the blessing before our meal together

If you are ever in the same room as John Owen, you'll likely know it. Everything about him is big -- his stature, his personality, his voice, his compassion, everything. We had dinner last night with friends, including John and his wife Belva who were visiting from Elmira, New York, and his presence even filled the yard where we gathered.

We've known the Owens for years, having become good friends during the time we all lived in Western New York. We took our little boys and went to visit them in Buffalo one wintry day and later published a story about them in the May/June, 1995 issue of our magazine, Family Scrapbook. Here are portions of that article along with a few thoughts from last night's visit.
We boarded Buffalo's Metro train downtown, at Theater Station, rode to the end of the line, and headed back. John Owen was taking us on a tour of the city. It was the first time for the boys to ride a train... We were seated at the front of the train, and John was talking to four-year-old Tommy about the ride. Across from us sat a sullen looking young man, staring straight ahead, lost in himself. We drew the children closer when we saw him. "Do you remember your first train ride?" John asked him, but there was no response.  He talked a little more with Tommy and then turned again to the young man. "Do you remember your first train ride?" Still no response. Determined, John once again addressed the young man, leaning across the aisle to get his attention. "Do you remember your first train ride?" Suddenly the sullen young man turned to us. His face brightened. His eyes sparkled as he recalled his first time on the train, at about the age of seven. "How many times have you ridden since then?" John asked. "Zillions?" "Yeah, zillions," said our fellow passenger, with a warm smile.Then, noticing our children, he said to Tommy, "Is that your brother?" He was animated and outgoing in the ensuing conversation. Amazed, we watched a man we had considered hostile brought out of himself by love. His day was brightened, and so was ours, by the encounter.
John Owen is comfortable with everybody. That is one of the traits that makes him so well suited to being a police chaplain.
It was while he was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary that the Lord ignited a fire in John to work with the police. Dr Gilbert James, a professor, took John and a handful of other students to Olive Branch Mission in Chicago to introduce them to inner-city ministry. While there, John rode in a police car, and that was the beginning. 
 His first pastorate was in Minneapolis. His wife Belva worked nights as a nurse at the VA Hospital. John didn't like being at home alone in the evenings so one night he took a freshly baked chocolate cake and paid a visit to the police station. But no one would eat the cake. Finally after a few hours, John helped himself to a piece. One by one, others took a piece. Later John learned that just two weeks before someone else had brought a chocolate cake to the station, but it was made with Ex-Lax. Until John ate the cake himself they weren't sure they could trust him!
 John soon became a familiar face around the police station and city hall. At that time both the mayor and police chief of Minneapolis were Christians as was at least one of the Minneapolis police officers, Al Palmquist. Through the efforts of these men, John Owen, and a growing team of volunteers, the Police Chaplain Corps was born, By his fourth year in Minneapolis, John was faced with a decision -- to be a full-time pastor of a full-time chaplain. After much thought and prayer, he left his church to become police chaplain. When he left Minneapolis five years later, there were 20-35 volunteer chaplains giving a day a month to minister in crisis situations. The story is told in Al Palmquist's book, Miracle at City Hall (Bethany Press).
In 1973 John and several others gathered in Washington D.C. to form the International Conference of Police Chaplains (ICPC). Chaplains certified by the ICPC must be ordained ministers or licensed lay ministers, men and women committed to offering support to police and other emergency services through crisis counseling. When I wrote the magazine article in 1995, there are 1500 chaplains around the world. John reports that there are now 4000 police chaplains on six continents!
"It is my opinion," says John, "that, based on Romans 13, the police are chosen and commissioned by God as servants. They are to the community what a pastor is to the church. They respond because they care about people.
 "The mission of the church is to actively seek the lost -- actively. I'm out seeking the lost. People have said they are lost by dialing 911 but the police [or fire or other emergency service] can't give them what they really need. They need Jesus Christ.
"I serve people in crisis...any time, day or night, weekends and holidays, 24 hours a day...whenever summoned by emergency service providers at the scene."...
Whether arranging assistance to stranded motorists, going with officers to notify people of a loved's one's death, staying with children whose parent has been injured in an accident, or praying with victims at the scene of a crime, Pastor Owen is available. But his work goes beyond ministering to civilians. He is also a chaplain to the officers.
Seven officers responded to a call last summer of a man with a gun, holding a woman hostage on the front porch of a house. When approached by several of the officers with their guns drawn, the man killed the hostage and shot at the officers. Though none of the officers was physically harmed, all have been deeply affected by the incident. John has been able to counsel and support theses officers, reading God's Word to them. "It is my hope and prayer," says Pastor Owen, "that they will come to truly know the Lord and become involved in the church as a result."
Belva and John Owen

For over forty years John and Belva have met the needs of people in the community while the Lord has met their needs through Belva's work as a nurse and the faithful financial support of those who believe in the Crisis Chaplain Corps. We've heard stories of God's provision of a car, furniture, and food for them just when their prospects looked very bleak. They have trusted the Lord to care for them and to use them in whatever ways he will. Each time we receive their ministry newsletter it includes the phrase "Communicating Christ-like compassion in crisis...and in all circumstances."

It doesn't matter where they are or whom they are with, John approaches each encounter as an opportunity to share that Christ-like compassion with others. He's been known to burst into song (remember his big voice I mentioned?) even in a restaurant as a way of sharing God's grace with someone. And God has used them to touch people's lives day after day, year after year.

John Owen doesn't ride in too many police cars these days, but he and Belva plan to continue making themselves available just as long as the Lord grants them breath.

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(Yes You Can is a monthly feature that tells the story of someone who has had a dream, followed their dream, and made a difference in their world because of it.)


Unknown said...

The John Owen I thought of was a great Puritan writer. Both of these John Owens should be honored to share their names with each other.

Ginger Kauffman said...

Two fine John Owens for sure!