By Wendy Norris of Forest Bend Fire Department, TX
The Soul of a Firefighter
The soul of a firefighter is a complicated thing. Of course the soul of anyone is a subject that is filled with wonder, questions, and confusion. I think though, that the spiritual being of a firefighter, their very soul is even more complicated because of everything they face. The average citizen does not see or experience in their lifetime what a firefighter does in a shift or a day or even a week.
Everyone knows that Joe Public doesn't call 911 to invite a firefighter to a party or to celebrate some lifetime achievement. Joe Public calls 911 because something crappy is happening in their life at that moment. Sometimes perception is everything, and those crappy moments aren't really that bad. But sometimes those crappy moments are really, really bad and guess who is there to straighten it out and clean it up? Ding, ding, ding! You are right! That would be firefighters, EMS, and police! At least, for the most part, firefighters or EMT's don't get shot at on the job. Although, we are seeing that happen more and more often.
Getting your hands dirty by trying to clean up the mess of death, trauma, fire, disasters, kids getting hurt, and the evilness of some humans is enough to cause even the most devout of religious persons to question their faith at some point in their career. For those of us that are Christians, we rely on a God who is sovereign. But sometimes we end up wrestling with God because we just don't understand the why's. Why did that mother kill her 5 children? Why did that hurricane just destroy 90,000 square miles? Why did those people fly a plane into the building? Why did that man shoot all of those Amish children? Why did that drunk driver kill those kids in the other car but he got to live. In anguish we cry out sometimes.
Most firefighters have some sort of belief system. What that belief system is, is another story. But there are quite a few Christians and Jewish people in the fire service. Even the most dedicated Christian firefighter can have a hard time with church. Not only are they mixing in the work schedules and personality of a firefighter (which is a whole other post) but they are mixing in a spirituality that is molded and carved out by the experiences they have working the streets.
Most emergency service workers have a difficult time connecting to organized church. What they are exposed to in their daily work causes them to develop a different worldview than those sitting next to them in church. The firefighter may see God's actions with His people far differently than someone who does not face death and loss on such an intimate basis. And the firefighter might be reserved in sharing with others their views for fear of traumatizing others or shattering their faith. The very sources that could offer encouragement and refreshment instead often cause additional stress. This could effectively separate a firefighter from the church and sometimes from God.
There are many firefighters who are successfully part of a church body or have healthy spiritual lives. Having a solid faith can help a firefighter to acknowledge and appreciate God's presence during times of crisis and disaster. Those individuals who are pretty solid in their faith are often the individuals that encourage the others who are struggling. Sometimes firefighters with strong faith, end up becoming chaplains.
Because church can be a difficult thing for whatever reason, sometimes a fire chaplain can offer guidance, advisement, prayers or other spiritual assistance. A fire chaplain is someone who can relate to the special spiritual and emotional needs that firefighters face and be able to walk them through difficult situations.
I have often wrestled with God over things that I have seen. I very much have the firefighter personality. It's hard for me to relate to Bible study groups, especially women's groups, because of the work that I do. However, John and I both have been blessed with a church small group that loves us for who we are and they are not judgmental. And they enjoy our stories. They have helped us grow tremendously in our faith. And I also have a mentor in my life who keeps me on the straight and narrow. Ed Stauffer with the Federation of Fire Chaplains, has been guiding me for the last few years. And then my parents keep me pretty connected to my faith.
Not every firefighter is lucky enough to have church groups that accept them, or mentors, or family and friends that understand the work you do and still try to nurture your soul. As a firefighter, my soul is being nurtured by some wonderful people who keep me connected to God. I couldn't do this work, as a firefighter or as a fire chaplain without my soul being cared for.
For many firefighters, finding God at the base of two mangled beams was their source of soul comfort during the many hours of recovery operations at Ground Zero. For those of us working body recovery during Katrina, we leaned on each other and the small, dirty Bible we carried with us in pants. For others, it could be anything. But the soul of the firefighter has to be taken care of, if not, they can burn out and/or get jaded quickly.
The soul of a firefighter is a complicated thing but it should never be forgotten.