December 13, 2012

Excerpted Chapter from Braestrup's Memoir

Kate Braestrup's chaplaincy includes both service to the game wardens of Maine's parks and forests and to the victims and families of search-and-rescue missions. In this excerpt from her memoir, Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup reflects on her relationship to the game wardens she works closely with, and how ministry with them ranges from responding to their emotional needs following critical incidents to simply being a companion in their daily work.

(Reprinted with permission from the publisher.)

I gave Peter a hammer and told him to go around the house and pound the protruding nails back into the old floorboards; I thought this would prove an entertaining chore for a boy. He decided it would be even more entertaining to go down to the basement and play coal miner. I caught him whacking great lumps of concrete out of our home's foundation.

"0' faithless!" I cried out, like the God of the prophets. "I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits … but you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination. Be appalled, 0' heavens, at this!" (Jer. 2:7)

Abject contrition does tend to provoke mercy, as sinners are only too aware. As we read in The Book of Common Prayer, "I have left undone those things which I ought to have done, and I have done those things which I ought not to have done." Peter said almost exactly this as we emerged from the cellar. It worked. I was merciful. The kid lived.

Over lunch at Moody's Diner the next day, I told Warden Rob Greenlaw the story of Peter playing coal miner. He laughed.

"What does Peter think of your job?"

"He thinks it's cool," I said. "And he's right."

"It's so cool that the warden service has a chaplain," Marian Moore said to me, just moments before the call came in that Alison, her lost child, had been found.

The first time I put on my uniform and looked in the mirror, I thought, This is really cool. I put my warden service ball cap on, adjusted the plastic tab on the back to account for my big fat head, and admired myself, made faces.

But then I slid the little vinyl boomerang into my collar, the sliver of white that transforms my ordinary shirt into a clerical shirt. It was a startling moment, that first look in the glass.

"CheezusMary'n'Chosef!" as Lieutenant Trisdale might say. I checked the bathroom door to make sure it was securely closed against anyone—child, friend, dog—who might come in and see me, as if I were more than naked.

The character I resemble most, I decided after some reflection, is Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H. And why not? Like him, I am a sort of generic, ecumenical clergyperson representing the God that even atheists pray to in foxholes, an undemanding character. The comparison is apt enough. Like Father Mulcahy, I wear a Roman collar. The shocked and bereaved search my face, but the white tab at my throat draws the eye, and they fix upon it.

"Your loved one is dead," I said one winter day, and the daughter of the snowmobile victim came close and searched my face, as if it might show that I was kidding or lying. It did not. "Oh my God! Oh my God!" she said, forcefully, as if she were angry. Then the white collar drew her eye. She took a sudden breath, "Oh my God," she said, and touched the white at my throat very gently with her fingers. Then, and only then, she sank down to the floor with me and wept.

I did not predict that reaction on my first occasion before the mirror. Instead, I predicted the flabbergasted incredulity of my friends, the sarcastic discomfiture of my then boyfriend, the shrugs of my children who adapt well to my strangeness. But I suspected and even feared that no one who actually needed a woman of God would be fooled into thinking I was it. I have to say, though, that mourners and wardens have thus far proved to be remarkably accepting, reassuringly capable of seeing beyond me, in all my flawed particularity, to the power, mercy, and love of God and neighbor that I, by grace alone, am striving to embody.

I am one of the people who respond to a Maine game warden with love and care when something miserable or scary or painful happens to him. I am not the only person who responds, and I am not the most important one. What he really needs, in times of trouble, is the familiar, solid love of his wife, the softness of his child's cheek against his own, the smell of his kitchen, and the voice of a good buddy on the phone. If he needs spiritual counseling, the best person to do that is his own minister, if he has one.

You can get along well enough without a chaplain, but you won't thrive without family and friends. So a good chaplain should encourage wardens to establish and maintain the relationships that really make a difference. Still, a law enforcement chaplain is charged with providing pastoral care, and that includes what is known as pastoral counseling.

"The central task of pastoral counseling is not problem solving," pastor John Patton writes in Pastoral Care in Context, "it is hearing and remembering in relationship" (40). This sort of remembering, Patton says, can be thought of as literally re-membering — recalling the fact of a game warden's membership within a strong and loving community at moments when he may feel lost or alienated.

Pastoral counseling isn't the same as therapy, though it may (I hope) prove therapeutic. I am not trained or credentialed for psychotherapy. Even if I were, my relationship with the wardens is not the same as the relationship between client and therapist, with its essential nonattachment and those fifty-minute hours.

I do know enough about mental illness to have a deep respect for its powers of immiseration. If a warden has the slightest indication of a mental health problem—clinical depression, let's say, or substance abuse—I refer him to a medical professional, emphasize the blessed efficacy of such interventions, and offer myself as glad company for the Journey.

I have nothing to do with promotions, hiring, or firing within the warden service. I am disengaged from the political processes that go on in state-run organizations. While some agencies have a "lieutenant chaplain" or a "major chaplain," I remain outside the rank structure. My relationship to the newest warden in the service is exactly the same as my relationship with the chief: I am his chaplain. I outrank no one.

"What are you yapping about, Holy Mother? You outrank everyone." Fritz Trisdale protests, when I tell him this.

"Talking to you is like talking to my big sister," Bill Allen says. Despite how old it makes me sound, I like that description: it's familial but not parental, interested but not invested. As we encounter each other at search scenes and debriefings, over bleary-eyed breakfasts at a truck stop following a long night's search, and meet at promotion ceremonies and flagwaving parades; as I preside over funerals and weddings, welcome the birth of children, and sympathize at the death of friends, the relationship between chaplain and warden grows and deepens.

"It's so cool that the warden service has a chaplain to keep us from freaking out," is what Marian Moore actually said in full.

"Ah." I smiled. "I'm not really here to keep you from freaking out. I'm here to be with you while you freak out," or grieve or laugh or suffer or sing. It is a ministry of presence. It is showing up with a loving heart. And it is really, really cool.

If my job is not problem solving, then a warden doesn't have to have a problem in order to merit the attention of his chaplain. He can just be out driving around in his truck or walking in the woods, and I can ride or walk beside him.

Warden Rob Greenlaw, for example, had no issue I was aware of. But it had been a while since I'd been out, so I called him and asked to go for a ride.

It was March, and the weather was warm enough to melt most of the snow. What remained confined itself to the areas beneath the pines that sometimes harbor snow until June. The sugar maple trees weren't quite in bud, but the tips of their branches were swollen and red. In another week, taps and buckets would appear on the ancient maples that line the stone walls along the old farm roads, and the clear, cold, sweet sap would be collected then boiled down to syrup.

Rob's district includes my town of Thomaston, so he picked me up at home. We headed down Route 1 toward Nobleboro, then turned down one of the scrawny peninsulas that dangle off the mainland into Penobscot Bay.

We were on a narrow, winding, two-lane road, chatting about this and that, when a car came screeching out of a driveway in front of us and took off, hitting sixty before Rob caught up to him, siren whooping and blue lights clacking and flashing along the front window of the truck. Maine game wardens have the same statewide jurisdiction, the same arrest powers as Maine state troopers, and they are empowered to do traffic stops. But their trucks are not equipped with radar, and Rob wasn't sure where, beneath all the heaps of fish-and-game law forms, he might have hidden his book of traffic tickets.

"He says he peeled out of his driveway because he was late for work. I asked him if he'd had a fight with his girlfriend or something," Rob told me when he came back to the truck to run a check for wants and warrants. "He said no, just late for work. He just does it that way sometimes. I told him he really oughta relax a little." Rob let him go with a verbal warning.

Farther down the road, Rob showed me a little patch of sumac and birch where someone had hauled a dead moose to use as bait for coyotes. Being in possession of a moose carcass, even assuming the guy didn't shoot the moose, is illegal, but the perpetrator would probably hold his hand over his heart and swear the moose just happened to drop dead of natural causes right at the bait site.

The moose carcass had been there for perhaps a week. It was hollowed out, and the stiff legs stuck skyward. There were a few strands of gray gut hanging from the ribs, but it was otherwise an empty shell, like a novelty canoe at some macabre water park. The skin on the knees had dried and peeled back. The joints were exposed and startlingly white. Most of the bones I've seen are cooked or weathered gray, but a fresh bone is a bright, pearly white. Above the moose carcass, the corpse of a crow dangled in a sapling.

"They hang up a dead one to scare the other crows away," Rob said. "Crows would eat the carcass before the coyotes came, and a big crowd of crows will bring the wardens anyway. We look for them—'deputy wardens,' we call 'em."

"So this guy has the moose here to bait the coyotes in, so he can shoot them," I said. "But why would he do that? I mean, he won't eat the coyotes, presumably, so does he sell the fur or something?"

Rob thought about it. "No," he said. "He'll just shoot them. I think people have the idea that it protects the deer, but really there's plenty of deer around here. So there's no reason for it. Coyotes are hard to shoot, which makes it more interesting, I guess. They're smart and wary. You pretty much have to bait them, or use hounds."

Rob wants to catch this coyote hunter. Rob knows who he is, can identify him by the wet prints of his truck tires on the road, and says he is "a mean guy." As with so many criminal offenders, those willing to commit one crime are generally willing to commit a raft of others, and in fact, this moose poacher is well known to area wardens and troopers as a domestic violence, drug, and traffic offender. A scofflaw is a scofflaw.

Rob showed me the target's tire marks. He showed me how to tell from the splash patterns around the puddles in the road whether a car had driven down that way, and if so, whether the same car had driven back out again. It had. We'd missed him.

For some reason, the scene at the moose carcass would keep coming back to me over the next few days. It was as if some Druid ritual had taken place there, with the black crow hanging sideways off the tree and the white bones of the moose sticking up out of the dead grass.

"Do your children smell good?" Rob asked me at lunch, after I told him the story of Peter the Coal Miner. He and his wife had recently welcomed a second child. "My boy smells so good. I could just eat him up."

"I did eat my children when they were little," I said. "I'd pick them up off the ground and say 'Ooooh, I'm gonna eat you like an ear of corn!' I'd hold them sideways, chew along their ribs. They loved it."

"My wife does that. She munches on the baby's hands and feet, and he laughs and laughs.... You know, we should introduce Peter to my daughter, Brianna," Rob said. "She's about his age, and she's a ball of fire. She'd keep him in line."

Back in the truck, we drove a few miles and then stopped by the side of the road. Almost instantly, we were surrounded by a group of small, grubby children. They clustered eagerly around Rob.

"I know why you got a gun," one little boy said. "It's so if someone's bein' stupid, then you can shoot 'im."

"Don't listen to him," his sister advised. "He's a silly monkey." No more than nine, she carried on her hip a toddler in urgent need of a fresh diaper.

Another child looked up after examining the great seal of Maine on the door of Rob's truck. "Did you arrest Paul for speeding?" he inquired.

"No," said Rob. "Should I have?"

"He drives like that all the time. He's my uncle, so I know."

"Uh-huh," said Rob. "I'll arrest him next time."

The children laughed uproariously at this, and the toddler bounced on the little girl's hip and laughed too.

"Who are you?" the silly monkey asked me, pulling on my fingers.

"I'm the chaplain," I said.

"You ain't got a gun?"

"No, I don't."

"Oh," said the boy, immediately losing interest. He turned his attention back to the quiet armed man. "What kinda guns you got?"

When the children, bored at last, abandoned us, Rob and I walked a quarter mile or so into the woods to a secluded little pond. Rob showed me the telltale signs of illegal fishing: blobs of bottom detritus hanging in shrubs and drying out on shoreline stones where only a fishing line could have hauled them. The moss on the stones was bright green, the water limpid and lovely, and the day, which had started out with rain, soft and bright. I was struck by how quiet it was, by how quiet Rob was. He is a quiet man with a quiet voice and a quiet walk. He moves along the shore in big, rubber soled boots, striding through the underbrush with no more sound than the breeze, while I blunder along behind, my breathing louder than his words.

It is Warden Greenlaw's job to get out of his truck and walk through the quiet woods as the maples swell and leaf, his job to stand and gaze across a shining lake, the scent of moss rising, birdsong in his ears. It is my job to go with him.

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is a Unitarian Universalist chaplain for the Maine Warden Service and the author of Here If You Need Me.