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Ohio county expands chaplain program

Six new volunteer chaplains will be on call to provide support, counseling and a listening ear after a difficult call or during day-to-day duties


Three Franklin County chaplains, Rev. David Murdoch (left) Rev. Leo Connolly and Rev. Tim Womack discuss the role of chaplains in law enforcement. Connolly is leading the new seven-person team.

Holly Zachariah
The Columbus Dispatch

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Ohio — Kelly Keys doesn’t even have to close his eyes to conjure the indelible images from the night more than 30 years ago when he rounded a corner in the Franklin County jail and saw an inmate in his cell, one who had just killed himself.

Keys was 21 and had been on the job only a couple of weeks. He and others tried frantically to save the man. They couldn’t.

Once the commotion had ended, another deputy leaned toward Keys: “He said, ‘Welcome to law enforcement, son. You’re going to see a lot of that.’ And that was the extent of my debriefing.”

Now Keys is a major with the Franklin County sheriff’s office, and that experience is just one example he gives to show why he feels the men sitting around a conference table with him at a recent meeting are so important.

“These guys are miracle workers,” he said as he waved his hand at the three ministers before him. One of them was the Rev. Leo Connolly, who has since 1984 worked solo as the only chaplain for the sheriff’s office.

But now, thanks to a renewed commitment by Sheriff Dallas Baldwin and an expanded program under Connolly’s direction, Keys has new colleagues who wear both the badge and the cross.

Six local ministers have since November gone through a three-day training developed by the International Conference of Police Chaplains.

The chaplains will help however they are needed, Connolly said, whether comforting bystanders at a crash scene, offering kindness to grieving families or even — as Connolly did this past Christmas Eve — helping a stunned and elderly widow still wearing her nightgown summon a funeral home after her husband died unexpectedly.

But their primary role is to get to know the 1,200 sworn and civilian employees of the office and to be there for whatever those people may need.

It isn’t a calling that’s a fit for every minister, said the Rev. David Murdoch, who recently retired as chaplain at Mount Carmel St. Ann’s hospital. Murdoch is a chaplain with Westerville Division of Police and now also serves with the sheriff’s office.

“You can’t be high-minded because you’re going to see stuff, going to hear stuff, that not every pastor can handle,” he said. “It is about the officer’s agenda, not about mine. It’s ‘what does he need?’ not ‘what do I think he needs?’”

Keys said the volunteer chaplains will likely work on-call rotations and can ride along with deputies, visit with detectives, get to the know the corrections officers and chat up the civilian office workers.

“It’s somebody you know, you trust, walking down a hallway, and he turns to you and says, ‘Hey, you having a good day?’ and you can say, ‘No, not really.’ And the chaplain just walks with you until you feel like talking,” said Keys, who oversees the support services division under which the chaplain program falls.

He noted that, two years ago, the sheriff’s office started a community chaplain program, where a diverse group of pastors would go out into the community with deputies and officers to offer aid. Keys said that program, called Police and Clergy Together, never really got off the ground, but once this expanded internal program gets its footing, that community-minded PACT work will resume.

Pastor Tim Womack of Central Baptist Church on Frank Road already volunteers as a chaplain with other law enforcement operations, including the Columbus Division of Police.

Womack said law enforcement officers carry the weight of everything they see and know and do, and sometimes, the burden can be heavy to bear. That’s where a chaplain — someone they can speak to in confidence without fear of judgment or reprisal — can help.

“My perspective is that when we need them, they’re there whenever we call,” Womack said. “So it’s an honor to answer the call for them.”