It wasn’t that long ago . . . the first time I felt it. July 23, 2010.
I was busily preparing breakfast for my wife and worrying about being able to get in and out of the shower quickly enough to make it to work on time. Breakfast preparation in those days was pretty intense, and the order was the same every day. Two eggs – not over medium because the yokes were too runny, and not over hard because she still had to be able to dunk her toast. For someone who doesn’t even eat eggs, I struggled with getting it right, and some days I would go through 5 or 6 eggs just to get 2 that she would eat! But that morning, breakfast preparation was interrupted by a phone call that caused me to simply turn off the stove and leave the uncooked eggs in the pan, because I now had a more important mission. I had to go upstairs and tell my wife that her baby boy had been shot and killed early that morning in the line of duty.
I was ultimately able to pull myself together well enough to meet up with my oldest son . . . also a police officer . . . and we made our way to the hospital to spend a few minutes with Matt before his body would be escorted to the medical examiner’s office. We were greeted by a wall of police officers from several jurisdictions, and escorted into a tiny waiting room where some of Matt’s fellow officers were standing, some were sitting, but all were fidgeting with nervous anxiety. There was coffee, and I hadn’t yet had a cup that morning, but I didn’t want any. I patiently mumbled my response to a few officers and hospital workers whose only words were, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I sat down, and a few other officers settled in the room. I especially noticed the detective diagonally across the room with 2 large paper bags on the floor next to his chair. I instinctively knew what was in the bags, and why he had to guard them so carefully.
And there we sat for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably not more than 4 or 5 minutes. And that’s when I began to feel it. Whether it is an instinct, a compulsion, or simply a calling, I felt like I was there to minister to the officers in the room as much as they were there to minister to me and Mike. I have been an ordained minister since 1976, but I had never felt more “called” to the ministry than I did that morning. After a few more minutes in the waiting room, we were finally able to go into the treatment room and say goodbye to Matt. As we were leaving the room, a lieutenant said to me, “Mr. Edwards, I just want you to know that we will do everything we can to help your family through this.” And instantly I knew how I had to respond: “You all are Matt’s family, too, and I want to do what I can to help you all through this. Let’s just get through it together.”
I think for the very first time in my ministry, I actually understood the conversation that had taken place several centuries before between God and the prophet Ezekiel. The people of God were suffering in exile, and God was calling Ezekiel to go minister to them. But God didn’t immediately tell Ezekiel what he should say . . . He instructed him to simply go and observe the plight of his countrymen. Don’t ask any questions. Don’t preach any sermons. Just sit there and watch. And so Ezekiel describes in his narrative how he went and simply stayed among the people, and summed up his week-long experience with these words: “I sat where they sat.” Ezekiel was moved by that experience. His capacity to minister to them was built upon a foundation of having lived that experience himself. His compassion for them was not the sympathy of an outsider, but the empathy of one who had been immersed with them in their sufferings.
The morning of July 23, 2010, I sat where they sat. I don’t know how else to explain it. But I can tell you that it is what drives me to do what I do as a police chaplain at the agency where my son served, and as a team member at Humanizing the Badge. Every time there is a line of duty death, my personal instinct is to shrink away and selfishly care for my own freshly-opened emotional and spiritual wounds. But then I remember, “I sat where they sat.” There are people suffering who need to be ministered to, and no one can do it with more sincerity and empathy than one who has sat where they now sit. There are family members whose heart may only be touched by a loving word from someone who has been there. There are young officers who may be attending their first funeral who need to learn how to put themselves in the shoes of the suffering.
I would be dishonest if I were to deny that whenever Humanizing the Badge posts about a line of duty death, my personal desire is to shut down the computer, retreat from the pain, and protect myself. But I can’t, because I sat where they sat. Whenever there is a line of duty death that happens close by, I would rather do anything besides put on my Class As and accompany a group of officers, stand in formation, hold a salute, and listen to one more final radio call. But I have to go, because I sat where they sat. I will continue to fight that feeling, and to embrace that feeling, because I sat where they sat.