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The Radnor Police Chaplain Program Offers Support to Main Liners

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Photo by Tessa Marie Images

Can Radnor’s Police Chaplain Program help heal the rift between law enforcement and the Main Line community?

When the Rev. Manuel Howard and Rabbi Joseph Domosh arrived at the house with Radnor police officers, young men and women were hysterical over the news that their Villanova University housemate had committed suicide on the tracks at the Garrett Hill train station. After assessing the atmosphere while his law enforcement colleagues got a handle on the scene, Howard offered a “ministry of hug—just being there,” he recalls. “You always ask permission, and, man, you feel the weights being lifted. I asked, ‘May I give you a hug to console you?’—then the tears, a breaking down, a release of emotion after the news of tragically losing a friend.”

Meanwhile, the university dean on site contacted the female student’s father in New York. He was told to come but spared details. “We all waited, consoled and comforted, providing spiritual-emotional guidance for the dean, those in the house and the police doing their work,” says Howard.

Two hours later, the father arrived. “We strategized to get him upstairs,” says Howard. “Once there, a grown man—a strong man—just broke down in my arms.”

This was back in 2019, the second year of the Radnor Police Chaplain Program. “To be a Class A township, we need to deliver the best and most timely assistance,” says Chris Flanagan, Radnor’s police superintendent. “A chaplain can provide an immediate stopgap measure or remain connected (to those involved). We push support, not religion.”

Radnor's Police Chaplain Program

Radnor Police Superintendent Chris Flanagan with chaplains Manuel Howard and Lynne Samson. Photo by Tessa Marie Images

In their intermediary role, the chaplains never get caught up in religiosity during life’s “cusps or pivotal moments,” says Lynne Samson, who’s been with the program since it started in 2017. “Love, forgiveness, trust and acceptance alone are the four core things we need to lead our lives and leave it in peace.”

A deacon at Wayne Presbyterian Church, Samson served as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia in the 1980s. “I’m grateful to have some street cred,” she jests. “But I also feel strongly that the police in general are very misunderstood—a lot like chaplains. No one wants a chaplain until you’re on your death bed. It’s the same with the police: No one wants you until you’re needed.”

Four years ago, Jennair Gerardot learned of an affair between her husband, Mark, and Meredith Sullivan Chapman. She broke into Chapman’s Bryn Mawr home, shot Chapman to death, then turned the gun on herself. The much-publicized tragedy was featured on ABC’s 20/20.

A community leader and pastor at Wayne’s St. John A.M.E., Howard ended up in the room with Mark Gerardot, Luke. “This man was distraught,” he recalls. “I sat. He paced back forth. ‘I can’t believe it,’ he said. ‘I can’t believe it. Oh my God. Oh my God.’”

As Gerardot went on and on, Howard prayed under his breath. “I looked at him, saw the anguish in his face, and asked, ‘Can I hug you and pray for you?’ He went limp in my arms,” says Howard, who leads Radnor’s five-chaplain team. “I knew about the importance of support in the midst of crisis, but I didn’t know how active we’d be. But the need … There’s always a need.”

And that’s the nature of the program. Chaplains provide a calming presence in volatile situations. A few years ago, after suspicious fires on Cabrini University’s campus were linked to race relations, Radnor’s team addressed the student body and tamped down the flames of controversy. These days, the need for support in policing—like the need to support law enforcement—is of escalating interest. To that end, chaplains serve the emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of the department. They also ride along in platoon cars on regular shifts. “We’re concerned with officer wellness,” Flanagan says. “We want to give our officers a chance to be heard.”

One example might be a young officer on his first homicide. “That can lock you,” says Samson, whose own husband died traumatically two years ago. “It’s important to give them a place to talk, and for them to feel they have an advocate so they don’t feel everyone is against them.”

Flanagan notes that Tredyffrin Township recently added a police chaplain program, and Haverford has inquired. The more, the better—as it allows for increased collaboration. When Lower Merion Township was dealing with the anguish of losing firefighter Sean DeMuynck a year ago, a Radnor chaplain stepped in.

On a regional level, the Law Enforcement Chaplains of Delaware County is the umbrella training program. One of seven founding members, Perry Messick is senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Collingdale and chaplain for Media’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 27 and Collingdale’s police and fire departments. Some of his work has come in the wake of seven police suicides. “It’s been a difficult two or three years in law enforcement,” he says. “But I sense a turning, which is encouraging. There’s been such negativity, but it’s also provided opportunity for officers.”

Nationally, there are about 4,000 police chaplains—some paid. Of the 42 law enforcement agencies in Delco, two-thirds have chaplains. “We don’t force our way in,” says Messick. “We’re a resource—and we’re glad to do it.”

In Radnor, chaplains represent multiple denominations. As volunteer members of the force, they’re given uniforms, coats and badges. They provide 24/7 emergency response assistance through a paging system, support officers in defusing angst when serving warrants, and are a pastoral presence at police parades and community events.

A call-in line to reach a chaplain is another community tool. “Police departments have to change with the times,” Flanagan says. “Some of the issues you see on TV can be avoided with a sense of community and trust. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

Interestingly enough, the Radnor superintendent’s dad is a bishop, 81-year-old James C. Flanagan. Meanwhile, Howard’s foster father, George Sydnor, was the first Black police officer and detective in Radnor. “You can’t do anything great alone,” Howard says. “Great talent needs support.”

Related: Race for Peace Works to Bridge Racial Divides in the Main Line

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