Sandy Hook shootings a reminder of the needs of 'God's first responders'

Published: Friday, Jan. 4 2013 2:10 p.m. MST

“Nine-one-one; what is your emergency?” This simple sentence, which gets directly to the point, can be an opening to the most heartwarming and heartbreaking stories of our time.

Depending on the nature of the call, it is an exchange with the potential to go far beyond a request for local law enforcement and medical help. In extreme cases, it can lead to the scrambling of fighter jets and a chain reaction of well-rehearsed escalations to ensure the safety of an entire population.

America’s 911 system is funded primarily through subscriber fees on telephone services. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, while revenues for 911 services have shifted in recent years as landline use has decreased in favor of mobile phones, it is fair to say that the system will remain secure. We rightfully expect 911 dispatchers to be calm, knowledgeable, efficient and effective. Thankfully, they usually are.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, however, a different group of leaders has taken center stage alongside those we are accustomed to seeing in a crisis-oriented news story: the clergy. Serving as “God’s first responders,” members of this ancient profession are called upon to help us make sense of something older still, a crime that both scripture and the anthropological record assure us is as old as the species itself: homicide.

Despite the necessary supportive role they play, however, these faith-based responders are themselves in need of better support, especially when it comes to pay and benefits commensurate with the time they spend on their work.

In the northeastern United States, religion plays a less visible role than might be typical in other regions of the country. Generally, matters of faith are considered private and references to a higher power are seldom part of public discourse.

More than 150 miles away from the site of the shooting, in what is known as “Far Northeast Philadelphia,” St. Luke’s United Church of Christ serves a modest membership of less than 100 people. St. Luke’s earth-tone, mid-century modern structure is often missed on the busy thoroughfare that serves as a major artery to the interstate and downtown.

Within hours of the Sandy Hook story breaking, Rev. Trent Williams, pastor at St. Luke’s, found himself in an unfamiliar position: in front of a news crew. Like many clergy in the days since the shooting, Williams opened his church for a prayer vigil to provide comfort and support to people in a state of shock.

Outside was a van from one of the major network affiliates. Inside, blinded by the floodlight of the camera, a local reporter began asking Williams what his message was, how to speak with children about the tragedy, and even how to “make sense of the senseless.”

A man who seldom speaks to audiences larger than 100 people was suddenly called upon to give spiritual and practical guidance to a media market of 4.5 million in an unscripted sound bite instead of his usual prepared sermon.

According to the Census Bureau, median annual family income in Newtown, Conn., is more than $100,000. This puts the local population in a position to financially support the clergy. In most communities, these often-unassuming figures who frequently require as many years of formal education as a practicing attorney or physician (four years of college followed by three years in seminary) find themselves forced to make difficult choices.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median salary for a pastor is a little more than $44,000, which covers the full range of experience levels. Absent from these data are factors regarding taxation. Clergy who work in decentralized religious traditions are typically considered independent contractors, meaning they must pay self-employment tax on top of their other tax obligations.

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