The Chaplaincy Connection
A sense of excitement and joy fills the air as uniformed officers file into the church gym. Red and green clothed tables fill the room, and families with plates full of homecooked food gather around them. This isn’t the scene of an emergency or crime; in fact, the only person breaking and entering is Santa with his bag of gifts.
Each Advent season Aldersgate UMC in Nixa plays host to the Christian County Sheriff’s Department Christmas party, but this wasn’t always the case.
The department used to put on its own party, setting up and tearing down in a school cafeteria. Aldersgate decided their county law enforcement deserved better than that, but they only knew of the need because their associate pastor Rev. Sarah Fotopolus serves as a chaplain to the Christian County Sheriff’s Department. Fotopolus’s chaplaincy paired with Aldersgate’s desire to serve has created many opportunities for the church to reach out to both law enforcement and the community.
For Fotopolus, chaplaincy borrows elements from both the practical and the spiritual. It involves working with deputies to deliver death notices to families. It means processing and praying with families in the aftermath of tragedy. It looks like calling to cancel doctor’s appointments for a family’s loved one when taking that step proved too difficult. It means walking families through what the following days and steps involve following tragedy. It’s about getting them through that next thing that seems impossible in the face of what happened.
“There’s some people we deal with that have never set their foot in a church, and we are able to bridge that gap,” Fotopulos says. “They’ve encountered somebody who represents a church, God’s church rather than any specific place, that cared for them, that accepted them, that didn’t judge them, that was kind to them and prayed with them, and walked them through what is going to be one of the most awful days of their life. That to me makes a big difference.”
At the start of her service, Fotopolus sat down with Sheriff Brad Cole to see what the community needs were. He mentioned the issue of resources for homelessness. Fotopolus sits on the Christian County Homeless Alliance, and through the Alliance worked to develop a resource list for the Sheriff’s Department, churches and schools to have on hand.
Focusing on the community doesn’t mean just the immediate community; Being a chaplain for the county sheriff’s department takes Fotopulos outside of Nixa at times. When the Duck Boat tragedy happened in Branson, she was called on to help deliver death notices the day following the tragedy.
As part of her chaplaincy work, Fotopolus makes a point of riding along with officers to get to know them and develop rapport. She says they’re more likely to pick-up the phone and talk with a chaplain if they’re familiar. Riding along helps officers realize chaplains can be helpful in a variety of circumstances in both work and family life; it gives Fotopolus a first-hand look at the compassionate work and service officers do.
She recalls a time when she was riding with a lieutenant when they received a missing child call. Fotopolus spent time with the parents while officers gathered information and began searching. It was a chance for her to sit and pray with them while learning more about their child. Some of the information she learned ended up helping officers locate the child.
Fotopolus says helping to bring the peace of Christ into a situation that’s anything but peaceful completely fills her soul as a pastor.
“Without the church’s support, I absolutely couldn’t be a chaplain,” she says. “To me that’s the embodiment of the heart of this church: to not only support what I do as a chaplain, even when sometimes it takes me away from the church, but how they have gotten involved in serving in so many ways.”
Knowing that her congregation included both active and retired members of law enforcement and that her church desired to support its local officers, Fotopulos sought to learn more about how she as a citizen and a pastor could better support law enforcement. The opportunity to become a chaplain resulted from that exploration; her chaplaincy has since created connections and opened doors for Aldersgate UMC to serve in many ways.
Earlier this year the Nixa community lost one of its school resource officers. His death affected many, from school staff to law enforcement, and after the immediate needs were cared for, they were in shock. Sheriff Cole asked Fotopulos if there was a place everyone could privately talk and debrief. Aldersgate opened its doors, despite having a large campus-wide event the next day. The entire building was cleared at the least convenient time possible, Fotopulos says.
The church’s sacrifice allowed the community to privately debrief in a safe space and allowed chaplains to provide spiritual first aid. It was a huge service to both law enforcement and the entire community.
“Law enforcement is the door to so many needs in the community,” Fotopulos says. “They’re a lifeline to the community, and they’re a community that needs serving.”
Aldersgate members support officers’ everyday work with their crafting skills, such as knitting and crocheting prayer shawls for county chaplains to hand out; or they volunteer their time and cooking chops to serve a hearty Christmas dinner.
When Fotopolus presented the idea of hosting the Christmas party, the congregation jumped at the service opportunity. This year over 100 volunteers will be involved in providing a stress-free Christmas party for Sheriff’s department staff and their families, about 200 people.
“You’ve got people from all over the county that are all coming together to do this,” Fotopulos says. “It’s not just ecumenical, it’s all walks of life and a means of outreach itself.”
Church member and volunteer Kate Whitson says she and other volunteers spend all day in the kitchen preparing for the party. They cook and glaze hams, make batches of cheesy potato casserole, simmer gallons of green beans the old-fashioned way with bacon and onions, and prepare homemade desserts for serving. Other volunteers spend time setting up tables and decorating or drop-off a homemade pie or casserole for the buffet.
Whitson says the church gym transforms throughout the day, and the space fills with the smell of a Christmas dinner cooked with care. Sheriff Cole pays a visit mid-afternoon to see how the preparation is going and check out the delicious food.
“We try to make it as festive as possible,” Whitson says. “We want it to be really nice for them because they spend their time serving us.”
Fotopolus says the party is a chance for the staff to get together for a social event with their families. Even Santa pays a visit with his sack full of gifts, which parents sneak in for their kids, and makes special deliveries. Sheriff Cole makes a presentation after dinner and presents the department awards.
At the 2017 Christmas party, the department awarded Fotopulos the Citizen of the Year Award for her work. Fotopolus says the award is a reflection and recognition of the heart of Aldersgate UMC.
“As a pastor, to be able to tap into something that I knew existed in the church, which is that desire to support and care for law enforcement, and be able to help it find expression through the connections God has made through the chaplaincy and the church has just been incredibly fulfilling for me,” Fotopulos says. “God keeps opening those connections and doors for us to serve.”