Last Saturday we shut down our super secret chaplain headquarters in downtown St. Paul. I’ve been asked not to name the location, but I can tell what we did. Police chaplains from around the state got together and set up a haven for any and all law enforcement personnel. We provided hot food, a place to sit and eat, bunks, showers, an area to relax with a TV, and most important of all, appreciation and encouragement for men and women doing a tough job. We had cops from Cedar Rapids, IA, Chicago, Tucson, Arlington, TX, and New Jersy, not to mention from all over MN. And those are just the ones I either saw for myself, or heard were here.
Each of the about 50 chaplains who made it through the vetting process were asked to work at least one 4-hour shift during the Republican National Convention (RNC). The shifts were from 2-6 and 6-10 every day, however, after day one, it became apparent that we needed to be there much longer than those hours. There were also many people from local churches who volunteered to work in our impromptu kitchen and mess hall.
We had a huge grill set up in back of our building and 15 or so tables inside. We set up two buffet lines: One for burgers, brats, dogs, and sometimes steaks, and one for desserts, mostly homemade. Everything was provided and paid for by the chaplains and their ‘faith-based organizations’, or by people and companies with which they were affiliated. Nothing we provided was paid for by the RNC or local police departments.
As chaplains, it was our job to connect with the law enforcement personnel and let them know what we had available for them and that we were praying for them. Monday, I worked the first shift with about 18 -20 chaplains from various cities. That day I chose to work the ‘outside’ perimeter which is anywhere on the street. The ‘inside’ perimeter being actually inside the X. We had been encouraged to take care of our own cops first, so I wanted to head to Fleming Field, So. St. Paul’s airport, where I knew one of ours was stationed. Since we were required to use the buddy system I went with Clyde, who is with the same department as I am. We took bottles of water and candy bars along to distribute. When we got there, we saw the police car out in the middle of the field and we couldn’t get to it because it’s completely fenced and locked. So Clyde called dispatcher and asked them to radio the car and have them meet us at the terminal. It turned out to be a lady who I know pretty well, and with whom I have done ride-alongs. We chatted with her for awhile. She had been on since 11:30am and was scheduled to work until 12:30am. Ugh. The St. Paul and So St. Paul airports were closed down for the duration of the RNC, so this was a pretty boring assignment. While we were talking two air marshalls arrived and we passed out water and candy. They seemed happy to have a break as well.
Clyde and I then made our way back downtown and began stopping on any corner where we saw cops gathered and handing them water and candy. That was just about every corner. We informed them of the super secret chaplain headquarters and mess hall available only to law enforcement. This was the only time it got scary for us. I turned left onto old 7th Street, which is a very narrow one-way. There was a police car ahead of us and ahead of it was a group of protesters in the street, some of whom were wearing black scarves over the bottom of their faces. This group looked like they might cozy up to a touch of anarchy. Clyde and I agreed this would be a good place to leave, but we were blocked in and had to wait til the protesters cleared the street. It was a very weird feeling watching these people whose intentions were unclear and maybe less then pleasant. Two of them stopped in the middle of the street and just stood there. This couldn’t be good. Then I realized they were posing for their friend who had a camera. Somehow that made them seem a lot more human. Hey, they just want to get their picture taken protesting in St. Paul. Who wouldn’t?
We eventually made it back to HQ and decided to walk around town and talk with cops we ran into. They were everywhere. We saw some making arrests and I got the strange sense from the arrestees that they were satisfied with whatever it was they had done — as if being arrested proved that they had succeeded in their protestations!
We spoke with one cop, stationed on the street, who told us they were happy to see chaplains around offering them food and water because they knew they could trust whatever we gave them.
That was Monday.
I worked the first shift again on Thursday and during our briefing, our head chaplain told us that the protesters planning a real ruckus, since it was the last day. He said the cops would be using ammo like paintballs, only larger, to mark protesters to be arrested. He warned us that if we got caught in the middle of something and ended up getting painted, we should just lie down, otherwise we might get a cracked skull. Thursday seemed like a good day for me to stay and work food service at HQ. I spent my time cleaning tables, wrapping sandwiches, and serving food to law enforcement, who were unfailingly grateful for what we were doing for them. I greeted a cop who had ‘Arlington’ on his arm patch. I have friends who live in Arlington, (MN). When I heard his voice I knew he wasn’t from around here. “You’re not from Arlington, MN, are you?” I said. He said “I thought I was doing such a good job not sounding like a Texan. I’ve only said ‘Y’all’ once.”
Altogether, the leader of our group estimated that the chaplains served more than 10,000 meals (in the land of 10,000 lakes) to the police during the four days of the convention and Saturday morning’s clean-up. It was interesting being behind the scenes of something like this. I really had the feeling, any time I drove downtown, that there were just a lot of people who didn’t look as if they belonged in St. Paul. The police had a tough job trying maintain order and protect property and people (including those protesting) in a high pressure situation while under a lot of scrutiny. They really were a long-suffering group. In the end, I’m very happy to have been able to encourage some men and women with peace and kinder words than they were hearing on the streets and I hope our prayers and presence helped create a more positive outcome for everyone who was downtown last week.