Brian Hays was working harder to find a parking spot than he ever had. When he had been a police officer, he could drive in remarkable ways. However, at that moment, on March 22, a few minutes before 3 p.m., Hays was a chaplain in Boulder, Colorado. He was responding to one of the worst crises imaginable: 10 people had been shot to death at a supermarket. Even so, he had no legal authority to drive on sidewalks or travel the wrong direction on one-way streets.
At 2:30 p.m., a man armed with a gun walked into the King Soopers and killed 10 people, including officer Eric Talley. Instinctively, Brian had rushed from his home as if he were still a cop, leaving for the scene of an imploding crisis. But now, he was hurrying out the door as a chaplain.
“I’m heading into darkness with different weapons,” the Converge pastor said. That mostly means the Scriptures, prayer and a heart listening for the Spirit. His only other gear was a chaplain badge and an official chaplain polo shirt.
“Lord, show me where to be.”
Twenty minutes after the shootings began, dispatch summoned Hays, the pastor of Rock Creek Church, a Converge Rocky Mountain congregation. He was to report immediately to the command post 100 yards from the grocery store. He knew people had been shot, and he had an inclination one of the victims was an officer.
Hays lives 10 to 12 minutes from that grocery store. But every police department and SWAT team from Boulder and other towns were in the streets surrounding it.
“I couldn’t get to the command post,” he said. “There was too much traffic.”
He held his chaplain badge out the window. He did his best to get to the command post as fast as possible.
“Lord, I need you to show me where you’re at work,” he prayed again and again in the traffic and confusion. “I need you to put me where I need to be.”
He learned the prayer from Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby. The first principle of Blackaby’s book is looking to see where God is working and joining him there.
Walking past the front doors of the King Soopers at 2:51 p.m., Hays had a lot to observe.
“A lot was happening with a lot of different SWAT teams,” he said. “They didn’t know at the time if there was more than one shooter.”
And he had a lot on his mind. As he had rushed from his home, his family was stressed and on the verge of tears. A few miles away, his daughter, Naomi, at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus could hear sirens. While he was driving she was calling her mom, Sandy, Brian’s wife, wondering what was going on.
In a parking lot 100 yards from the shooting, Hays’ first assignment was to connect with the first entry team. That means he spoke directly with officers who entered the grocery store while there was an active shooter. Before long, Hays was in a room with investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Homeland Security; the FBI and numerous Boulder and Colorado law enforcement officials.
“If we really take Christ up on being a disciple maker and expanding his kingdom and being used by him, he will position us and train us and give us experiences that we may not know in the moment why we’re going through them.”
How is God at work?
Hays wasn’t without questions about tragedies in the world and how to manage grief, loss and anger. But clarity about what God can do had begun to appear. At about 11 that night, Hays was at the police department. Feeling sadness and anger, he saw God begin to illuminate some elements of the reality.
First, he realized God was at work because the Boulder Police Department even had chaplains. Boulder had never had chaplains in its history, going back more than 150 years.
Hays explained Boulder isn’t the only department to go without chaplains. The old idea of chaplaincy, he said, was showing officers their sins and inviting them to church. That turned a lot of police departments off, including Boulder’s. But even during the COVID pandemic last year, Hays and other chaplains started doing ride alongs, building relationships and sending text messages back and forth.
During a seven-year stint as a police officer in Ventura, California, he knew two officers who committed suicide.
These two friends of mine didn’t have someone to turn to at that moment or felt that they didn’t have someone to turn to,” he said. “I made an internal vow: I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure (cops) aren’t alone.
He also saw many other situations in which officers and police staff where they struggled with the evil in the world.
“Nothing solidified my learning in seminary like being a cop,” he said. “Being a cop really solidified my deep conviction that people need Jesus Christ.”
So, after joining the first chaplains in Boulder’s history, he practiced a ministry of presence, simply earning the right to be heard and serving officers however he could. Then in March of this year, a friend was hired at the Lewisville Police Department close to Hays’ home. Hays had previously offered to be a chaplain there, but nothing ultimately developed.
Hays’ friend started at LPD on March 1 and asked Hays for some time to adjust to the new job and develop some relationships. Two days later, he invited Hays to lunch.
“He said the chief had given him orders to start a chaplain program,” Hays said.
Such dramatic shifts don’t happen in the police world that often, both he and his friend agreed.
“So, my question was, what’s coming that God is flinging the doors open to start this chaplain program?”
Nineteen days later, shots were fired at King Soopers.
Prayers came years before Boulder’s first chaplains
The work to have chaplains in Boulder goes back five years, according to Kevin Shive, founder and executive director of the Rocky Mountain Police Chaplains. He said people prayed for five years to see a chaplain in Boulder. Because the law enforcement community doesn’t always understand what chaplains do, and because some chaplains have made mistakes despite good intentions, many police departments weren’t open to having or pursuing chaplains in past years.
However, God is doing great works among the chaplains with RMPC. The ministry now has about 180 chaplains serving roughly 80 agencies. Boulder became one of those agencies last year, despite the pandemic. Five chaplains were identified, trained and began developing relationships with officers and civilian police staff.
“It’s a real-life, get-out-and-do ministry.”
The goal of a chaplain is to be preventative, to serve officers when there are no crises. Granted, crises happen about 10 percent of the time. But the remaining moments in an officer’s life are just like anyone else’s.
Days of joy or positive experiences come and go alongside life’s challenges, confusing moments and losses. Many conversations chaplains have with officers are more about life, marriages, relationships, parenting and financial troubles.
“The only way you get that is to be trusted by the officer,” Hays said. “We’re able to hear and do things that no one else is doing.”
And in crises, chaplains are essential for supporting officers.
When chaplains show up, we want to know exactly how the officer is doing,” he said. “We provide things on the human level that the officer needs in the moment.
Being a chaplain offers pastors and ministry leaders a great way to get outside the church’s walls and impact the community.
“It’s such an important way to get involved outside the walls of your church and stop waiting for people to come,” he said. “It’s a real-life, get-out-and-do ministry.”
In Colorado and Wyoming, police departments throughout the Rockies interested in having chaplains are calling RMPC.
“We believe we’re part of a movement right now. We’ve grown so quickly and so steadily,” Shive said, noting there is no marketing. “We’re just responding to people calling us.”
Those departments and agencies desire chaplains because they want the care and perspective chaplains offer.
“God is moving,” he said. “It’s his hand of favor.”
Police departments, especially in a pandemic and an era of increased opposition to police throughout America, are looking for ways to care for officers and their families.
Chaplains have been a critical support to officers. The ride alongs, the texts, the therapy dogs and the presence have all supported officers, Shive says. In Boulder, a chaplain had a dog she brought with her in building friendships with officers. At Christmas time, an officer gave the chaplain a Boulder PD vest for the dog.
Those kinds of gifts show the chaplains are getting to know police officers and becoming known by them, which is an essential step in serving the departments and communities.
Shive sees what chaplains do in the light of Christ’s command to go and make disciples.
“You’re accomplishing the great commission in some of the most needed areas of your community,” he said.
When officers are influenced and supported by caring people, the entire community benefits. That’s why RMPC trains all their chaplains to know the officers and their families and be known in everyday situations, not just when there’s a crisis.
“We’re there to be ambassadors of hope,” he said.
How your church can get involved
Hays also sees how local churches can get involved. He said Christians shouldn’t overthink serving first responders.
“Just love them,” he said. “When it’s done on behalf of the church, it changes the way people perceive the church.”
Bring food or ask a local restaurant to cater food one night. Make a poster that has an encouraging message and present the poster to officers at a daily meeting.
“Who would think God could act through a cookie or a poster, that God could grab the heart of an officer through a statement made to them?” Hays said.
A significant step Christians need to remember is serving officers months after a crisis such as a shooting. Within six months, he said, most people think all has gone back to normal. But police still need support and caring presence from people for months or years after a tragedy.
Above all, he says, understand that prayer is the ministry for transforming police, fire departments and other first responders.
“What would happen if all the police were saved?”
Although such transformation would be a long process, Hays has seen God do great things in a short amount of time. Because chaplains in the Boulder Police Department began building relationships several months before the March shooting, they now have deeper trust and connection to officers and the civilian staff.
While Brian was praying and trying to catch his breath the night of the shooting, he heard God speaking.
“I am also using this to take chaplaincy from taking years to build trust to building it in a moment,” the Lord said to Hays. “In one moment, I’m advancing five, six, seven years down the road.”
Despite the tragedy, Hays believes “the hundreds of thousands of people brought to their knees by this shooting are giving God a chance. They are asking questions about creation and Godlike figures.
“For Boulder, it was a dark day, and yet light was breaking in. It was an honor to walk in steps of light breaking into darkness.”
Ben Greene, Pastor & guest writer
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.