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‘Hey Chap! How’s it going?’

Creation of chaplain position at Peoria Police Department is helping to bridge gap between the blue, community

by Phil Luciano |
Phil Luciano

Martin Johnson puts on a police badge to serve and protect Peoria – not with the law, but with love.

Johnson, the senior pastor of New Beginnings Ministries of Peoria, recently was named the lead chaplain for the Peoria Police Department. There, he heads seven other chaplains in a new, all-volunteer program.

The goal is to tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of officers and their families, as well as respond to crisis situations involving distraught Peorians. Johnson sees the chaplains’ new role as a way to bring the community together, especially in an era of fractured police-public relations.

“We want to be that bridge, because we stand in both lanes,” Johnson said.

Johnson, 55, heads New Beginnings, 3201 NE Madison Ave., and has served on several community boards. He leads the African American Pastors Coalition, which meets with city and police leaders to address community needs.

About two years ago, the coalition suggested the police department consider adopting a chaplain program. In part, the idea sprang from anti-police protests across the country, Johnson said.

“I’ve seen Peoria in the highs and lows,” said the Peoria-born Johnson. “I’ve seen distrust in the police department.”

To take a proactive step in Peoria, the Coalition thought chaplains could stand in the gap.

“I just know from being a pastor that when a church is active in a community, a community changes for the better,” Johnson said.

The creation of the local position reflects a national movement. According to the FBI, “there has been a dramatic increase in the use of police chaplains in both large and small agencies across the United States.” Further, the FBI says:

  • “Police departments benefit immensely from chaplains’ services.”
  • “One main role chaplains play in law enforcement agencies is fostering officer well-being. They provide spiritual and psychological hope by establishing rapport and offering counseling.”
  • “Chaplains foster relationships between law enforcement officers and the public.”

Though delayed by the pandemic, the Peoria program was initiated late last year by Police Chief Eric Echevarria.

“Chaplain Johnson is well respected inside the agency and the community as a whole,” Echevarria said. “As the lead chaplain, he has been of tremendous help. … It is an honor to not only have Pastor Johnson as a chaplain, but the whole chaplain team in general is an integral part of the agency and what we do to serve our community.”

Johnson mans an office at the department from 10 p.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. He volunteers with the blessing of his church.

“They see the importance in it,” Johnson said. “We have a good team that enables me to step away.”

Though Johnson has no police experience, he served 30 years with the U.S. Air Force, the first 15 years in aircraft maintenance and the latter 15 years in recruiting. In many ways, police officers and military personnel share on-the-job commonalities, he says.

“It’s a stressful position,” he said. “We get in our zone and don’t realize the importance of self-care.”

He and the other chaplains take turns filling shifts.

“We’re here for the officer and their families,”’ Johnson said. “We build a ministry of presence. It gives us access to the officers.”

At first, Johnson did not get many visitors from officers, who seemed wary of the newcomer. But over time, they warmed to Johnson’s familiar face.

“It’s really just being a listening ear and establishing an element of trust,” he said. “If they want to vent, it’s a judgment-free zone.”

These days, officers pop into Johnson’s office throughout the day. He has become part of the ebb and flow at the police station, with officers regularly calling out, “Hey, Chap! How’s it going?”

Officers are afforded confidentially by the chaplains, who are of multiple faiths and ethnicities. The pastors do not push religion, Johnson said.

“We’re not here to proselytize,” he said. “We’re here to listen.”

They’re also there for the community. On a rotating schedule, there is a chaplain on-call 24-7 regarding any crisis situation. In such cases, the on-scene police commander can summon a chaplain, who can offer comfort and make any needed referrals to social-service agencies and other support services.

In one recent case, Johnson was called to the scene of the death of an 8-month-old. The distraught mother was beside herself with grief and could not communicate with officers. Johnson was called to intercede.

“Initially, it was difficult,” he said. “The loss of a family member, it’s hard for an outsider to penetrate that.”

But Johnson eventually was able to talk with the mom, providing her with support services, including a funeral home willing to help with expenses for the burial. Officers noticed his ability to assist in the difficult situation.

“They said they were grateful I was there,” Johnson said.

Johnson also is thankful.

“We’re grateful to be able to serve in this capacity,” he said. “When we step up, we can walk out the Scriptures. We can begin to turn the city of Peoria around.”

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP. He can be reached at [email protected]