By Jonita Barram
When the phone rings at 2:45 a.m., you know it’s something momentous. When you’re chaplain of your local police department, you know it’s bad news.
That was the case for Chaplain Dick Dayton on Nov. 2, 2016. Dick and his wife, Gloria, have been serving together for nearly 50 years, first as pastor and wife and now as volunteer chaplain and wife for the Urbandale (Iowa) Police Department. As a pastor, Dick sought systematic ways to interact with and serve his community. A friend who was a chaplain with the Iowa State Patrol challenged Dick to become a chaplain and take the friend’s place, as he was moving away. Dick accepted the challenge and was trained by the State Patrol. Later, when the Urbandale chaplain moved away, the police chief asked Dick to become the department’s chaplain.
That November morning, the voice on the other end of the line was Sgt. Dan Stein, a supervisor with the Urbandale PD’s Administrative Services Division. The news was serious: Officer Justin Martin, one of their own, had been ambushed and killed.
After traveling with Stein to make a death notification to one of Martin’s childhood friends, who’d also been in Martin’s police academy class, Dick returned to the station, spending most of his time trying to be in the background and available to members of the PD. By then, though it was still early morning, members of the community—including Gloria, who brought homemade brownies—were already arriving to pour out their sympathy and support while bringing large amounts of food.
Dick and Gloria’s ministry is first of all a ministry of presence. “As we come alongside our officers, we have the opportunity to gradually build trust and acceptance,” says Dick. He sees three “classifications of acceptance” as being typical for police departments. One group would be glad if chaplains weren’t there; these people are resistant to spiritual matters. “With these people, we do all possible to be supportive of their work and to stay in the background. We have found that as we come alongside our officers in death scenes and death notifications, they become more accepting of our presence, especially when they see that we are not trying to get the limelight or interfere with their work,” Dick says.
The second group are those who have strong spiritual convictions; they are glad to have a chaplain with them. The third group are neutral. Dick says that as he and Gloria have sought to graciously serve, they are seeing an increasing level of acceptance.
Gloria generally accompanies Dick to death notifications. She provides much-needed hugs and consolation. At times, a notification has precipitated a medical response in the one receiving the bad news, and her experience as a registered nurse has enabled her to provide calm help. Having both Dick and Gloria on the scene frees officers to get back to their patrols sooner, as Dick and Gloria stay with the family until friends, neighbors, and relatives can come to support them.
As a Bible-believing chaplain, Dick relates to several Biblical characters and precious truths. He says that just as God led Abraham’s servant on his journey to find Isaac a wife (Gen. 24), “as we are available, the Lord leads and enables us to serve.” The statement in Hebrews 13:5 that God will neither leave nor forsake believers gives Dick and Gloria confidence that He will guide and accompany them. They also find strength in 1 Corinthians 15:58, which promises that believers’ work for the Lord is not in vain. “We may not see immediate results,” says Dick, “but we are confident we are serving as God enables.” He also points to Psalm 142:4, where David says that no man cared for his soul. Dick says, “Our goal is that we might minister to the souls of our officers and to the community.” He says that most people outside the law enforcement community have little understanding of the pressures and problems officers face.
Though Dick is a retired pastor, he teaches a personal evangelism course, two math courses, and a science class at Faith Baptist Bible College in nearby Ankeny, Iowa. Between these classes and his ministry at Urbandale Baptist Church, Dick finds it challenging to “block out the kind of time I would like to have to invest with our department.” Yet in times of crisis, he and Gloria make themselves available.
While the days following Officer Martin’s death were anything but typical, Dick and Gloria carried on their usual ministry: being present and available, consoling others, and backing off to give the officers space and privacy when that was what they needed. Dick feels that in a crisis like this, his primary ministry is a ministry of presence. “The emotions were raw and fresh, and, just like with a death notification, I did not feel this was the time to share much Scripture with people.” But he and Gloria have received feedback that their presence was appreciated.
Dick had the opportunity to attend Officer Martin’s funeral in the policeman’s hometown, Rockwell City in northern Iowa. An Urbandale business chartered a tour bus for families of officers and anyone else from the department who wished to go. Dick also took part in Urbandale PD debriefings, facilitated by Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) and the Iowa State Patrol, during which time officers could voice their thoughts and feelings. Dick had the opportunity to close the second debriefing in prayer.
Officer Martin’s death was Dick’s first involvement in a line of duty death. Previously he had attended a visitation for a fallen policeman and participated in a state ceremony to honor another one, but this was the Urbandale PD’s first time losing an officer. Dick says that because he and Gloria have spent over a decade with the department, they were able to come alongside both officers and their spouses, providing encouragement and support. He asks fellow believers to pray for Regular Baptist law enforcement chaplains as they minister in these increasingly difficult days—days when law enforcement seems to be under attack. “Only eternity will reveal the full impact of the efforts of these volunteers.”
When the phone rings at 2:45 a.m., you know it’s something momentous. When you’re Dick and Gloria Dayton, you’re ready to be available, humbled by the opportunity to serve the Lord and your local police officers, their families, and your community.
Jonita Barram is assistant editor of the Baptist Bulletin.