Chaplains offer spiritual guidance to police force in Iowa

By ALEX BOISJOLIE
Sioux City Journal

Police chaplains serve as best friends and supporters of law enforcement.

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) – Before being the spiritual pedestals for Sioux City Police Officers to lean on, chaplains Maj. Von Vandiver and Rev. Dan Rupp were in different lines of work.

Vandiver, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was a computer consultant before he and his wife, Linda, became ministers and led the Salvation Army of Siouxland.

“It was a natural disaster that got me to change. My wife was an insurance adjuster, and, in 1993, there was a flood in the Missouri River that devastated St. Louis,'' Vandiver, 59, said. “We got busy helping to respond to the flood. I was in Arnold, Missouri, and I will never forget this, this guy came in and he was totally destroyed by the flood. I talked to him and gave him a cup of water and a hot dog. I just sensed God saying to me, `You could do this the rest of your life.' I thought, `Wow, I think you are right.'''

Rupp, 51, a Sioux City Catholic priest, heard a similar voice early in his life but didn't listen until after he graduated Iowa State University with a degree in electrical engineering.   

“When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be a priest but that was gone by second grade. I didn't know what I wanted to be, but not a priest. Then in high school, a little call was there but I didn't want anything to do with it,'' said Rupp, a Cherokee, Iowa, native. “I finally graduated college, and in college, you are always thinking about next year, next semester, next week. Then finally you sit down and you work. And I asked, `Could I see myself retiring as an engineer, yeah, I suppose I could. I liked my job, I enjoyed my work, good money. But should I retire as an engineer? Oh boy, no. Then the thought of being a priest came back, and I thought here I go again. But I realized, it is not a curse, it is a blessing. I was just uncooperative for a while.''

As Sioux City Police chaplains, Vandiver and Rupp are always on-call to tend to the needs of the members of the department, from personal struggles at home to job-related incidents, the Sioux City Journal reported .

“This can be anything from the death or serious injury of an officer to a traumatic incident or major call for service that would result in a critical incident debrief,'' Police Chief Rex Mueller said. “We rely on them for a lot of the same duties that a church would rely on a pastor. The fact that our chaplains are willing to take on this task for no compensation is a testament to their leadership and desire to help others.''

Vandiver has been a department chaplain since 2014. Rupp filled a recent opening, succeeding the Rev. Michael Erpelding, a Catholic priest, in October after Erpelding was reassigned to parishes outside Sioux City.

Von and Linda Vandiver have been leading the Salvation Army of Siouxland since 2008. He was offered the chaplain position after his involvement in an emergency preparedness group with the police department.

“I call it a ministry of presence,'' Vandiver said. “I've met most of the officers through a training class or whatever, they know I'm here. It's not somebody saying, ‘Go talk to the chaplain, now' or anything like that. I'm just going to be there if they need me.''

Rupp is a cleric for the Mater Dei Parish in Sioux City that includes the Immaculate Conception Parish and the Nativity Parish. He got in contact with the department through his hair stylist, whose husband in on the force.

“I have a great respect for our police officers,'' said Rupp, who noted he has not yet counseled an officer. “I'm happy to help any way I can.''

Vandiver said the most prominent occurrence his job was needed was with the unexpected death of natural causes of Sgt. Jay Fleckenstein in April 2015.

“The department took it hard, a 39-year-old just went home after work and just drops dead. That was tough for them,'' Vandiver recalled. “But in a strange way, I like doing funerals. As a minister, people are not really interested in spiritual things, but when you are confronted with death ... particularly an unexpected one _ I think people want to know is there a heaven, and not just, ‘Is this it?' I like, in a perverse way, to comfort them during those times.''

Both chaplains said the best way to strengthen a person in need is through listening.

“I always tell them, I don't give advice unless they specifically ask for that. I'm here to listen,'' Vandiver said.

“Of course, listen, listen, listen, is the most important thing'' Rupp interjected.

Vandiver continued, “(police officers) are a very closed group of people, they trust other officers and it's hard for them to share anything with somebody outside the organization. So I am just here to listen.''

The chaplains earn a badge and a jacket for their contribution to the department (even though Rupp hasn't received one yet, he laughed).

Mueller applauded their devotion to helping the department.

“Police officers deal with people in crisis and see horrible things on a daily basis. Having some spiritual guidance and leadership inside the police department is extremely important,'' the police chief said. “This gives our officers and staff a place to turn to when dealing with the many stresses that come with police work. Because of what is expected of us as we carry out our duties, we sometimes fail to appropriately deal with all of the trauma we experience. Since our chaplains are familiar to our officers, it can help open those lines of communication.''

Information from Sioux City Journal 

Photos courtesy Upstart Productions

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