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An Interview With Chaplain Rob Dewey

For people who don’t know, what does a Chaplain do?

A Chaplain is someone who is assigned a task by an agency to care for the people in their command, such as, a person can be assigned a hospital Chaplain, or military Chaplain. I served as Chaplain for the FBI. They can be ordained, sometimes they’re not ordained. It’s a matter of being a person of God, and to come into that organization to offer spiritual support. So it’s been my privilege to serve as the Chaplain of the federal drug court program for some 15 years and the state adult drug court some five years.

What led you into this line of work and was this ever on your radar when you were a young man?

I’m an episcopal priest, ordained in 1983, so 40 years. Back in 1990 I had a church on Johns Island, and I started doing some ride alongs with some police officers, sheriff deputies in the Charleston area, and they started coming by the church for counseling and for me to do their weddings. So then I thought and prayed about, well gosh, wouldn’t it be neat to start and do a nonprofit ministry in this group. It had never been done in South Carolina, so what I did was I talked to my bishop, I talked to the police sheriff and I started a nonprofit with their blessings. My Bishop told me after I raised $50,000 I could leave the church and start this new missionary, and I don’t think they thought I could do it. So after 9 months I had raised the initial $50,000 and began this as my full time ministry.

What did you do before your work as a Chaplain?

I was a police officer in the mid 70s for a couple of years, and then I went to seminary. So I had an idea of what cops did and what they go through, but never did I realize until I got involved in this ministry of how many suicides and line of duty deaths there are. We have around 300 line of duty deaths for cops every year and about four times that many commit suicide. So there is so much of a need, and we have experienced that same ratio here too. So I saw the need you could say to fill this spiritual void that is out here in this world.

In your opinion, what are cops facing on a day to day basis with their jobs that seem to cause this spiritual void, or black hole that leads to so many deaths by suicide?

Well, you never call a cop for anything good. So you’re always responding to something yucky, not good. So they only get called for the bad stuff, and then they’re usually working overtime to try to make more money for their families. Most of them are divorced, most of them come in young and are coming from broken families, most of them have done some type of drugs in their life. The FBI over 10 years ago had to change the way they were interviewing their agents, because they had a no drug history policy. They had to change that to no drugs in the last two years in able to have enough candidates. Over time though, being called for the heavy stuff, the bad close relationships you’re living with, and then the black holes they keep encountering that they usually try to fill up with things that cause acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Was this line of work ever on your list of dream jobs as a kid?

I tell you I had in my heart at an early age the mission to work in ministry. I had a priest come and talk to us when I was in the 8th grade and said, “At least one of you will be in the priesthood one day.” And I said, that’s going to be me! And I had some divergence before I got there, school was hard for me. I was fortunate enough to have people who wanted to help me along that path to get me to this point to what I now see as my dream job. Five years ago I did not it see it that way, because I was in the black hole place because of my experiences with depression after the AME murders, the Slater Scott shooting. 2015 was a horrendous year in Charleston with everything that happened and was going on. So it’s still a struggle, even when I have God to lean on.

Do you ever think about those times as moments that hopefully can lead you to greater sense of awareness, faith, or love and devotion? Almost as if our hardships and opportunities are two sides of the same coin?

Let me put it to you this way: my mom and dad got divorced when I was two, my mom was beaten by my dad, I struggled as a kid with dealing with the non-love that came with my biological father. So in 1985 I had a gun that was loaded and I attempted to committ suicide. The gun jammed, and since then I was in deep, deep depression. To be able to come back and now be involved in the ministry that I’m involved in, I’m involved every single day with someone who is dealing with depression, or dealing with things from their childhood, etc. I’ve probably been on the Ravenel bridge over 300 times negotiating with jumpers, and I’ve had people jump in front of me, shot themselves in front of me, but I’ve had a lot of wins too, and for that I give thanks. I think what I’ve learned from all of this is that it’s very important to get in the same boat as people as they are going down the rapids of life and to try to relate to them. I think it’s important to get beside people, not to necessarily always share your story, but to listen to theirs.

Hardest day on the job?

I think that’s any time I’m on a scene when you’re dealing with someone who has experienced loss of life: the sofa super store here where nine firefighters were killed; in 2015 we had the Emanual murders right down the street. When I got back from 911 for instance I was interviewed by the media and they were asking what it was like, but the thing is all of us have 911 experiences that happen in our life. What are we going to do with these experiences? For that family that loss their kid to an overdose the other morning, that’s their 911. So any time I’m dealing with a loss of life situation, that’s just devastating.

What about a positive or transformative experience on the job?

I’ve got many over the years. One that comes to mind about 20 years ago I got a called from a dispatcher at 2am saying there was a 29 year old found needle in arm dead at his house. So I got up and got dressed and the dispatcher calls me when I’m on the way and says you can 1022, the family doesn’t want a Chaplain. I said 10-4, stand by for a call, but really I kept driving thinking, let me just get there and see what’s going on. So the sargent came out and said, “Chap thanks for coming, only the mother is here, the brother is deployed, and the father is on a business trip in Greenville. But she has an argument with her Rabbi and doesn't want to talk to anyone else. I said, “Give her my card and if she wants to talk tell her I’m here for her.” So she took it to here and within two minutes she came out and said, “She would like to see you.” I stayed with that lady for the next three hours while her husband came back and her other son was given the news. The next morning I came by and met the whole family, and she introduced me to here whole family and we had this amazing moment together. Then about three years ago this man came up to me at a Deli here and he says, “You don’t remember me,” and I could see tears, “but my son died of an overdose and you stayed with my wife till I got home. Thank you.” And he walked away.

What has helped you remain spiritually strong and determined enough to do this work?

I rely heavily on relationships. Sitting down with you for example is exciting. Me going to our drug court that our ministry is involved in tomorrow is a blessing. I’m able to reach people who are hurt. I was on the phone with someone till 9pm last night with someone from court. But for me I need to go to church at least once a week, keep up my relationship with the Lord, and exercise, and to eat right. I think putting those things together is what is key to me. Sometimes if I don’t take enough time to do one of those I struggle, till this day.

When you’re having a really hard day or something doesn't work at all as you had hoped for, what do you tell yourself?

I just know that it’s only a roadblock, that I’ll get around it, I’ll figure it out, and that it’s okay to feel or experience depression. I like to do hobbies that get me out of my head, I make stained glass for instance. And then those things that I mentioned earlier that I try to dedicate time to every day. And finally, spending time with people.

Any aha moments when you realized you created something that was important or filling a big need?

At one point we got down to $200 in our account to do this work, and I had a minister reach out to me saying, “Hey just so you know we’re down to $200 in your account. I’ll help you start looking for a church.” I said no, I do without the money, because I felt that this was the work God was calling me to do. Then we would receive checks that kept us going, a couple bigger ones really helped and that all to me felt like signs that this was supposed to be and kept me going even more.

What is the most important quality, skill, or character type you look for in a chaplain?

I have trained many chaplains, ministers, and rabbis in my 30+ years. Where I see the number one mistake is trying to pray for them too quickly in their faith belief. So turning that around, the first thing that I do when I get to a crime scene or to a first responder is ask where they are coming from spiritually. Is there someone I can call for you? Do you have a community I can notify? I find that being able to give someone the chance to do ministry and know that they are cared for in these types of situations, it’s a huge blessing.

Biggest things that you have gained from all your time and experiences as a chaplain?

To really appreciate each person for who they are, and to look at each person as a child of God. Not everybody wants religious things, but everybody wants caring from other people. That has been a big part of my life and ministry.

What do you hope to be remembered for?

Something that hasn’t been done before or something that wouldn’t have existed without me, and this ministry has done that. It’s been a great life and I’ve enjoyed it, I’m blessed to be able to say that.

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