Chaplain counsels fallen firefighter’s grieving family, community
EASTLAND, Texas (SWBTS) –The final call for 21-year veteran volunteer fireman Greg Simmons echoed across the North Texas cemetery, stirring wails from friends, family and fellow firefighters. Fire chaplain and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary counseling professor John Babler stood a short distance from the grieving family with tears in his eyes.
“If I ever make it through one of these without tears, I know it’s time to quit,” Babler says.
Babler served as the Texas Line of Duty Death (LODD) Task Force’s incident commander for the fallen Eastland firefighter’s funeral, a memorial that drew national media attention and unified Eastland County residents as well as firemen from across the state who continued to fight the worst recorded wildfires in Texas history.
The LODD response team, a branch of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, aids families and fire departments in preparing funeral arrangements, organizing honor guards and assisting with the coordination of benefits. With a large number of chaplains on the team, they also counsel families and firefighters in the wake of these tragic deaths. They spend an average of three years caring for a family and one year caring for a department.
“We bring in people with different backgrounds and expertise,” Babler says.
Babler, who served as a fire department chief for three years and as a fire chaplain since 1999, has been responding with the LODD team for the past four years and now serves on the organization's board. His role as incident commander required him to organize the team as well as minister to Simmons’ wife, two daughters, and the Eastland Fire Department.
“In this situation, one of my primary roles was to work with the fire chief,” Babler says. “The two other chaplains focused on the firefighters, but since I’ve been in a command role, I worked with the chief.”
When a 1999 church fire in Fort Worth took the lives of three firefighters, including Babler’s daughter’s Sunday school teacher, he helped plan the funerals at Birchman Baptist Church, where he also serves as minister of missions. At that time, he began to sense a call to join the fire department as a firefighter and chaplain.
“I looked around at that point in my life and realized that the only people I knew were Christians,” Babler says. “It was a great opportunity to spend time with people who weren’t Christians.”
Babler’s experience as a firefighter and chaplain, combined with his role as a counselor and seminary professor, made joining the LODD team an easy choice.
“People in crisis are open to spiritual things,” Babler says. “When we encounter crisis, whether we want to or not, we typically at some level reflect on life and death. The fire fighters in a department where there has been a line of duty death are not only impacted by the loss of a friend or brother firefighter, but they think of things differently.”
Babler teaches his counseling students to make the most of informal opportunities to minister and share Scripture.
“One of the things that we try to do in biblical counseling is encourage people not only to counsel the Bible but also to take advantage of informal opportunities,” Babler says. “I’ve had opportunity in this situation to share Scripture in a couple of different conversations and to pray in several different situations.”
One unique way Babler ministered to the family and fire department was to give Simmons’ wife, two daughters, and the fire chief copies of the The HCSB Firefighter’s Bible. Inside each Bible, Babler inscribed a handwritten note of encouragement.
While many picture professors as academics in an ivory tower, Babler proves there can be a balance between scholarship and compassion, a trait he wants to pass along to his students.
“God has called me and put me in a situation where I take that passion and focus on people and practical application of Scripture,” Babler says, “and He challenges me to teach it to students, and hopefully they’ll develop some of that as well.”
Babler, himself, has learned from his experiences in fire stations. He recognizes that firefighters develop a strong sense of community and work together to accomplish their goals.
“The fire service is a better church than the church is at times,” Babler says.
“As I look at Paul’s teaching on the church as a body, I see a group of different folks, gifted in different ways, coming together and able to accomplish together what they can’t accomplish by themselves. In fire service, if you don’t work together, the fire won’t go out.
“When my ankle hurts, the rest of my body works together to take the weight off my ankle so it can heal. The fire service does a good job of coming together to take the weight off of something that is injured so it can heal. A lot of times in the church, we kick the ankle to see if it’s really hurt rather than helping it out and taking the weight off it. So, I’m encouraged and challenged by that community in the midst of crisis and the strong relationships that I see in the fire service.”
Yet, Babler also recognizes that many firefighters live raucous, worldly lives and need the love of Christ. Because of their tight-knit community, chaplains often have difficulty getting a foot in the door.
“It’s hard for a pastor with no fire service background to be a chaplain and be effective,” Babler says.
“In many respects, fire chaplaincy is waiting for a crisis to occur so you can have an opportunity to minister.”
Babler serves as vice president of the Texas Corps of Fire Chaplains, which organizes, trains and supports chaplains across the state. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will host the organization's annual training conference April 29-30. The conference will include basic fire chaplaincy training as well as an advanced biblical counseling session taught by Babler.