Maine wardens call the Rev. Kate Braestrup when there's an emergency in the woods.
Whenever there's an emergency situation in Maine's woods that requires a ministerial presence, Braestrup is likely to be there. These emergencies can include lost hikers, snowmobile and all-terrain vehicle accidents, drownings, suicides, and accidental shootings.
Her job is to be with family members, to keep them informed and provide comfort. Sometimes that means going to the accident scene. Sometimes she goes to the family home carrying the news of the death of a loved one. She also “debriefs” and counsels the wardens.
Braestrup knows something of tragedy herself. Her husband, Maine State Police Trooper Drew Griffith, died in an auto accident while on duty in 1996. He had planned to go into the ministry when he retired. A year after his death, that is the path she chose.
She and her husband and their four children, now ages 12 to 18, had joined the First Universalist Church in Rockland in 1991. “I had had this very specific religion in mind and was afraid I would have to invent it and then we found it,” said Braestrup.
Four years ago, while still in Bangor Theological Seminary, she was asked to be the warden service chaplain because she and her husband had been part of the state police family for many years. Her husband's death also gave her insights into what families feel in times of tragedy.
“I knew about being suddenly deprived of someone you love and about that literal fall to the floor and then the getting up again,” Braestrup said. “When I talk to families I can share that. I can tell them that I know they will rise again.”
She said she is not afraid of telling a family someone has died. “I think I demonstrate a kind of confidence that they'll recover from this blow. Just by showing up in my uniform and clerical collar I embody compassion and care.”
Braestrup is a community minister affiliated with the Rockland church, which ordained her in June 2004. She works from her home in Thomaston, where she also does freelance writing. She never knows where she'll be the next day. “I might work a 40- or 50-hour week compressed into three days. Other days not much may happen and I'll stay home and make phone calls and attend meetings. When my
beeper goes off, there I go. The best part is when they pick me up in a float plane.”
Being UU helps her meet the needs of people with diverse religious beliefs. “I meet the families wherever they are in regard to religious language,” she said. “Being UU allows me to be somewhat fluent in a number of different religious dialects. I pray with them in the language that's comfortable for them.
“Being a law enforcement chaplain means that all the big theological questions are being asked in real time––the existence of evil, why bad things happen to good people, whether there's a heaven. When you're standing right there you have to give them practical answers. They don't want a theology lesson.”
The other part of her job is debriefing the wardens themselves. “If they've worked a particularly horrendous scene, I'll spend some time with them. What seems extraordinary to me is how much love and care and kindness there is in police work. They do what they do so beautifully and tenderly. It's a privilege to be part of that.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.