When there is a death or tragedy in Joplin, police and firefighters are not the only ones on the scene.
Members of Joplin’s Chaplain Program are usually among the first to respond, seeking to help soothe the grief and sort out the stress that can affect both victim and emergency services workers.
There are four in Joplin’s chaplain corps and the longest serving of those is Tim Sumners, pastor of the Eastvue Baptist Church, 2802 New Hampshire Ave.
Sumners wanted his 70th birthday on Tuesday to pass uneventfully, he said, but instead found himself center stage at the meeting of the Joplin City Council where he was presented a rare “key to the city” in honor of his 27 years of service to the program.
“It’s kind of unusual to be honored for something you enjoy doing,” he said. “And I totally and thoroughly enjoy what I am doing.” He added that the best part is interacting with people of all walks, especially police officers and firefighters and their families.
“I think we have a high caliber of people here that serve us in the capacity in which they do,” Sumners said.
Joplin police Lt. Brian Lewis said one of the chaplains are on call around the clock in case a death notice needs to be delivered, to counsel police officers and firefighters, or to provide assistance in an emergency such as a traveler becoming stranded.
Chaplains and local churches hold lunches for new officers and firefighters, distribute Bibles to them, and hold a banquet for the police officers and supply steak dinners to firefighters in recognition of their work, Lewis said.
“They come to our jail every Sunday afternoon and hold church services for inmates who want to attend,” he said.
Sumners and members of his church visit with the jail inmates, make calls for them since they have no access to a telephone, and provide them with white underwear, required as part of the jail uniform.
“I say we’re the only church I know that has an underwear ministry,” Sumners says.
Eastvue members Bill Michaels and Gloria Turner credit Sumners’ dedication to ministering to all people as one reason they believe in his church.
“I do know he has been ministering in the Joplin City Jail for many years,” said Michaels. “He has led the church in mission outreach all over Mexico and as far as South America with several organizations. I think he has led our church to be a pilot light. Through his leadership, we have ignited fires throughout the world with our mission outreach.”
Turner said she and her family believe that Sumners “has a real servant’s heart.”
She said Sumners “may hold a doctorate but he just quietly goes about his work,” without seeking recognition for it.
Sumners gives credit to the other chaplains — Bob Heath, Dave Schepper and Gene Hutchcraft — for the long life of the chaplain program, which was created in 1987.
“I shouldn’t be singled out because I couldn’t do this without the other guys,” Sumners said. “I’m happy and proud to be able to work with them.”
He also credits the work of his congregation and other churches.
“I’ve had to have the backing of the church,” he said. “I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without the church” allowing him to spend part of his time working in the chaplain program, and providing money and supplies for the work done for police and fire workers and jail inmates.
Both Lewis and fire Chief Mitch Randles said some of the key work the chaplains do is critical situation stress debriefings for emergency workers after a major event, particularly those that involve injury or death.
“I think it helps,” Randles said. “Everybody has different needs when it comes to dealing with circumstances and situations we deal with on a daily basis. With them it definitely lets them cater to the need of the individual and that experience they’ve been involved in.”
“One of the most difficult things we do is to get a call in the middle of the night that there’s a fatality accident of some kind,” and the chaplain on duty has to deliver a death notice, said Sumners. “We have to get someone up in the middle of the night and they know if you’re there it’s something bad. That’s probably the most difficult thing we have to do.”
How many times has he had to deliver a death message? “Way too many,” he said. “Way too many.”
One of those involved a murder-suicide. Sumners said he was called to a fatality on Interstate 44 in which a man had committed suicide by walking into the path of a tractor-trailer truck. When he went to the man’s residence to notify his next of kin, he found that person murdered.
At crime scenes or places where a death is discovered, “our responsibility is to work with the family to try to get them taken care of,” Sumners said. “We try to address their immediate needs,” and keep them aside from the scene until investigators can talk to them to get information for the case. Chaplains also can explain some police procedures to families of victims.
Helping those in grief or who have experienced a traumatic event is something Sumners had to learn to do quickly at the start of his career.
Certified as a pastor at the age of 17, he went to college at Oklahoma Baptist University and then moved to Dallas to enroll in seminary. While there he took a job at a large hospital where his two-week training period was interrupted within 45 minutes after he started the job.
“I almost immediately (after starting work) had to tell a mom and dad their son was killed on a busy highway,” he said. “They brought their boy in thinking he was only injured and I had to take them in the room and show them their little boy (after he died) and I have never gotten over that,” Sumners said.
He stayed at that job more than 1 1/2 years “and that is what got me into this chaplain business of helping people in a crisis time in their lives.”
That mainly involves the willingness to listen, Sumners said. He learned that technique from a book called “The Listening Ear,” he said.
“We do what we do because God’s called us to do it, and if God calls us he enables us with the power of the listening ear,” he said. “It’s not so much what you say as what you hear. You listen not with just your ears but with your eyes and your heart. You have to learn and cultivate the art of how to listen.”
A compassionate listener can help a person begin to heal.
“That’s true of all of us in life,” he said. “We just need to listen to one another in life and listen with the heart so that you show that you really do care.”
Chaplains give 200 hours of volunteer service to the Joplin Police Department a year, according to the department’s 2012 annual report. The chaplains receive training from the International Conference of Police Chaplains and the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.