Concerns Over Political Correctness Deprive A City's Firefighters Of Spiritual Counsel And Support
TThe ice storm was the most savage to hit Austin in years. An impoverished family, shivering in their small, dilapidated house, lit a fire that night to keep warm. A fire … in a house with no fireplace. The smoke killed them. Then the house went up in flames.
Now, paramedics carry the charred remains outside, where flashing blue lights illumine the scene. Andrew Fox, the firefighters' chaplain, covers the bodies with blankets, then kneels beside them to pray. He moves to the back of the fire engine, watching the firefighters, waiting while they clean and pack their equipment. A battalion chief asks him to say something to the tired men and women in their grimy jackets.
"Anything you want to talk about?" Andrew asks. "I'm here." No one replies. After a moment, they climb onto the truck and drive away.
Back at the firehouse, one or two take him aside. They speak of things that have nothing to do with the horrors of the night. He listens. After a few moments, they say, "Thanks. That helps." And walk away.
"You think, 'We didn't really talk about … that,'" Andrew says. "But they did.
"That," he says, "is the grace you bring."
Andrew Fox's very existence is a miracle of grace. His unwed British mother - shamed and shut away by her family for the duration of her pregnancy - tried everything to make the baby inside her go away, including drugs and throwing herself in front of a moving car.
Andrew came into the world anyway, to be adopted and raised by his mother's sister and her husband. He was 18 before he learned who his real mother was. And, in large measure, who he was, himself.
"It's very humbling," he says. "As a child, you're naïve. It's like, 'Okay, I'm adopted. Maybe my father's the king of England!' It's a fantasy world.
"But then you go through adolescence. Any adolescent wrestles with a sense of belonging, of knowing your place in the world." It's like a jigsaw puzzle, he says. Take one piece away from the puzzle, and that's how he saw himself: with a piece missing.
For people like him, Andrew says, "that piece is never the background. Always the foreground. And you've got to find that piece. For some, it's their biological parents. For others … something more spiritual."
Andrew sought out his birth mother, who "told me the story, and has been telling me fragments of that story ever since." Hers has been a difficult life, racked by the lingering pain of bad choices. But the boy she tried so hard to abort cares for her, wants to be there for her, keeps making the effort and reaching out.
In time, Andrew brought his own family to America, where - as a minister and chaplain to first responders - he's become especially good at helping other people sort through their pain and put the puzzle of their lives together. Police officers, paramedics, and firefighters often seem to lose something crucial to their souls amid their daily immersions in tragedy, pain, and loss. Studies show that first responders are twice as likely as the average person to seriously contemplate suicide.
As a chaplain, Andrew has developed a keen discernment for how and when to reach out in ways these first responders - notoriously loath to reveal their vulnerabilities - will appreciate and acknowledge. He's spent years learning their ways, sharing their traumas, tending their spiritual wounds. It's made a great and tangible difference … in their lives, and in his.
[Ministering to others became] 'a fire shut up in my bones.' It never left me. It's just crackling away.—Dr. Andrew Fox
But that's over now. Andrew isn't a chaplain anymore. Firefighters still call for his help, but his ability to respond to them is limited by the fact that he's no longer an official fire chaplain. And because of that - for the first time in a long, long time - a crucial piece of his life is missing.
Andrew came of age in Nottingham, England - "Robin Hood country," he says, smiling. Even as a boy, he liked books more than classrooms and people more than books. His adoptive parents guessed, early on, where his calling might lie, and so allowed him at age 16 to forego regular schooling for work as a carpenter's apprentice, buttressed by night school and volunteer work in his local church. The combination - practical ministry, personal study, and interaction with many kinds of people - all pointed toward his eventual work as a chaplain.
Ministering to others became, Andrew says (quoting the prophet Jeremiah) "a 'fire shut up in my bones.' It never left me. It's just crackling away."
At a church conference in southern England, he fell at first glance for a pretty girl across the room, and instantly launched a full-on romantic pursuit that succeeded beyond his wildest dreams - mostly, the girl says, because she completely misunderstood his intentions. His professional intentions, anyway. She thought she was dating a carpenter.
"I told God, 'I'm not marrying a minister,'" remembers Renée, who's now been married to one for going on 30 years. She and Andrew began raising their three children while he worked alongside her father, planting churches. Then came four years as a pastor … and debt collector. Evenings after work, he would knock on doors, introduce himself, and turn conversations about pounds-due into warm invitations to church.
He wanted to get outside the walls of the church and into the community. He wanted to meet people who weren't Christians.—Renée Fox
"He wanted to get outside the walls of the church and into the community," Renée says. "He wanted to meet people who weren't Christians."
Soon, his pews were overflowing, Andrew remembers, with "church folk whom you would never think were 'church folk.' I absolutely loved it."
Friends invited him to visit the U.S. and preach to their congregations; then came invitations to pastor an American church of his own. Eventually, Andrew and Renée made the jump "across the pond" - followed, soon enough, by another hop … into an entirely different kind of ministry.
Andrew's new church in Kennewick, Washington, included a few police parishioners. His visits with them led in time to a conversation with their chief, who impressed upon Andrew two ideas: 1) that the police department could use a chaplain, and that 2) becoming one wouldn't be easy.
"You've got to earn your way in," the chief said, and Andrew set about doing so. He showed up on time, did what he was asked to do, put up with the rough hazing, blue jokes, and endless prodding.
"In that kind of world, the ruder they are to you, the more insulting … those are terms of affection," he says. "If they're overly polite to you privately, that keeps you at arm's distance. It's not like a Sunday morning conversation." After two years - and still not pleased with his progress - Andrew decided on a more aggressive overture.
The police chief was introducing tasers to his department, with the requirement that anyone using the tasers must first be tased. "Hook me up," Andrew told him.
Normally, the taser was attached to a subject's ankle, or his shoulder. Andrew asked for both. "Which was the stupidest thing in the world." Two strapping officers grabbed his arms, somebody flipped a switch, and "I squealed like a 12-year-old boy." He laughs. "And that won me great favor." He was in the club.
The club included a front-row seat to a great deal of death. Traffic accidents. Shootings. Gang violence. Suicides.
"You see the face of death in all of its expressions," Andrew says. "The text, 'I am the resurrection and the life' takes on a different form. Many times, the paramedics would be finishing up, the person's dead, and you'd be kneeling beside that person, saying the Lord's Prayer." The dead person, of course, could hear nothing.
"But those officers can. And that's sacred."
He doesn't get emotional, doesn't go to pieces. He's not afraid to talk about difficult things. He has a great, compassionate heart.—Renée Fox
"He has a good way of dealing with trauma and crisis," Renée says. "He doesn't get emotional, doesn't go to pieces. He's not afraid to talk about difficult things. He has a great, compassionate heart."
Andrew volunteered with the Kennewick Police Department for five years, learning what it took "to be a Christian in that extraordinary environment. It tested your faith to see if you were a snowflake … just a 'Sunday morning guy.' I enjoyed that."
Life moved on. A few crowded years later, Andrew had a home in Austin, Texas, the start of a successful real estate business with Renée, a growing call for his skills as a business consultant and lecturer on university campuses, ideas for a couple of books, and was working on his Ph.D. He also had an invitation, courtesy of the Kennewick chief, to meet with the chief of the Austin Police Department.
The Austin police already had chaplains, their chief explained … but the Austin Fire Department hadn't had one for 15 years. Andrew was introduced to that group's chief: an atheist. She told him that she didn't believe in God but that men and women in the fire department needed this resource. She invited him to organize a chaplaincy program, recruit volunteers, and serve as lead chaplain.
Soon, Andrew was back among first responders, and it all came back around: the teasing, the vulgarities, the name-calling. No tasing this time, but he gained a lot of affection when he misjudged the length of a firehouse pole and landed on the floor in a heap. "The environment of a firehouse is a fraternity of college students," he says. "But when the alarm goes off, they are DC and Marvel heroes. They really are."
Andrew worked 24-hour shifts at different firehouses, eating in the breakrooms, sleeping on cots, riding the trucks, dealing, again, with death. "I've done many in-the-line-of-duty deaths, but more suicides," he says, citing the brutal statistics on firefighters. "They always look fine. But they aren't fine."
Recognizing that "is the premium of all your responsibilities," he says. "You live a prayerful life, and discern that 'something's not right here.' There's a protocol to follow. You get to know someone and, lo, discover they're going through a horrific divorce, or have lost a child, or something like that. You walk with them … and continue to walk with them."
You see the face of death in all of its expressions. 'I am the resurrection and the life' takes on a different form.—Dr. Andrew Fox
"It is the hands and feet of Christ in extreme situations - fires, car crashes, storm deaths, accidents - which these people have to process." Some, Andrew knows, do their processing through sex, drugs, and alcohol. "So, you are offering, as Jesus says, 'I'll show you another way. A better way.' And that takes time."
Time, Andrew found, was the key to building, slowly, the relationships that gave him a voice in his firefighters' pain. But time, for him and his chaplaincy, was about to be cut short.
In between his teaching and lectures, real estate and travel, books and church work, there is his blog. It's something Andrew's students and friends encouraged him to write, and he does, applying his thoughts, insights, and theology to the subjects that interest him most.
The blog has nothing to do with his work as a chaplain, so he never mentioned it to the firefighters he worked with. He doesn't think they even knew about the blog. Certainly, none of them ever mentioned it. Until, one day, someone did.
The comments came after a post Andrew wrote about men who identify as women and then compete in women's sports. He offered historical and Christian perspectives on women's athletics, cited several female athletes' concerns about men competing in women's sports, and expressed his own enthusiastic support for women athletes. He also explored the differences between equity and equality, and "social" and biblical justice.
A few weeks after he posted the entry, Andrew was surprised to receive an invitation to discuss it with the chief and assistant chief of the fire department. At the ensuing meeting, the two officials assured Andrew that they didn't want to interfere with his blog or censor him in any way. But … his post had apparently offended some LGBT members of the department.
What specifically offended them? Andrew asked. The officials said they didn't know. Nor did they ask him to take any action in response. At the end of the meeting, they did ask him to pray.
Andrew suggested a meeting with an LGBT liaison to discuss things. The meeting was arranged. The liaison declined to identify what exactly was so offensive in the blog post, talking instead about the bullying and mental health problems experienced by many people who identify as the opposite sex.
Andrew, trying to better understand those concerns, offered to meet again. Meanwhile, he had already taken his blog offline, until he could clarify the problem.
At the second meeting, the LGBT liaison shared some personal experiences - but still did not explain what was so upsetting about Andrew's blog post. He assured the liaison that he'd be happy to talk with anyone troubled by his writing. Then, still unable to clarify any specific problem, he put the blog back online.
That prompted another meeting with the assistant fire chief, who, this time, presented Andrew with copies of his blog entries, annotated with anonymous comments, complaints, and accusations of male chauvinism, racism, and transphobia. Some questioned how the department could continue to draw on the services of a man who would say such "hateful" things.
The fire chief, Andrew was told, wanted him to write an official letter of apology to the LGBT community of the Austin Fire Department.
He went above and beyond to be understanding and to serve others. But no amount of compassion he showed to others was enough … because he didn't compromise.—Kelly Howard, ADF Legal Counsel
Eight years, Andrew Fox had served as a volunteer chaplain. In all of that time - living and working up-close with hundreds of firefighters of many races, including both men and women and a number who identified as LGBT - not one complaint had ever been filed against him. In fact, he had been formally commended for exemplary service.
In a group as tight-knit and close-quartered as firefighters are, "if you're a secret anything, it will come out," Andrew says. "There's no way of hiding in such close proximity." The people of the department could not pretend to have misread Andrew's character.
Their objection, then, was to his personal religious beliefs - recorded on a private blog, on his own time, with no relation whatsoever to his work with the department. In effect, he was being told to recant those beliefs, in an open letter to the City of Austin, as a matter of public record.
Andrew offered to apologize to anyone whose feelings were hurt - but not for what he believed. With that refusal, he says, "The die was cast."
The termination letter, when it came, explained that Andrew's firing was necessary "to ensure that all of the Department's volunteer chaplains provide a comforting and welcoming presence and service for any and all firefighters and Department employees."
No "thank you." No recognition for time served, sacrifices made, or lives saved by Andrew's many hours of dedicated volunteer service. He wasn't even allowed the tradition of keeping his uniform. The department had him stuff it in a plastic bin liner and leave it on the front step of his house.
"I wish they had stripped it from me," Andrew says. "It would have been more honorable."
Andrew struggled to find an attorney willing to help him take legal action. Finally, someone suggested Alliance Defending Freedom. Andrew reached out and was immediately impressed.
"This delightful lady called," he remembers. "She spoke to me with such dignity and respect. From that day to this, it's been like … 'wow!' They know what they're doing. I follow their counsel. And I can sleep at night."
ADF attorneys filed suit on Andrew's behalf in federal district court, citing Austin officials for retaliating against him for exercising his First Amendment right to share his religious views and opinions on his personal blog.
"The government can't do that," says Hal Frampton, senior counsel with the ADF Center for Conscience Initiatives (CIC). "But that's exactly what they did. They fired him because they didn't like his views. We are asking that they right that wrong by reinstating him to his position."
ADF attorneys say the case is important because it involves the ability of Christians to express their faith without losing their jobs. "There's a hard line there," Frampton says, "and our job is to convince the court that religious people are allowed to disagree with broader culture without being kicked out of public service."
The government can't do that.... They fired him because they didn't like his views.—Hal Frampton, Senior Counsel
"You look at how clean Andrew's record was," says Kelly Howard, legal counsel with the CIC. "He did everything right. He was trying to reach out to people - even those who had different perspectives on the topics in his blog posts. He went above and beyond to be understanding and to serve others. But no amount of compassion he showed to others was enough for the city, because he didn't compromise. He didn't change his beliefs and recant."
Frampton says that hard line is at odds with how much of himself Andrew poured into a voluntary position, "the incredible investment of time and resources, and generosity of spirit. He was willing to spend what should have been his free time with firefighters, handling the most gruesome scenarios you can imagine … just to make sure that the people who take care of all of us have someone to take care of them.
"Clearly, this role was incredibly important to him," Frampton says. "A calling. To have it yanked away from him - not because firefighters were unhappy or because he was ineffective, but because city administrators didn't like his religious views - just cut him to the quick. It took away a large part of what God has called him to do."
"It was his identity," Howard says. "A huge part of how he would have described himself, if you'd met him before this. And now he doesn't have that anymore."
The Austin Fire Department still has two chaplains volunteering, but without their leader, Howard says, "there seems to be a lack of cohesiveness to the program now. Andrew put in the time. He was doing so much for the program that his loss is felt distinctly. Over the years, he built trust with the fire department. You can't really turn trust on and off. That's why he still gets so many calls."
The calls come, as they always did, at all times of the day or night. A family has died. A firefighter's girlfriend killed herself. A woman is trying to find her way out of an affair. Many don't care that Andrew is no longer with the department.
"To get those calls," Renée says, "and know you can't go. And know nobody else will, either."
[Andrew] is the right person to go through this. He knows what he is fighting, and he's got no fear.—Renée Fox
Andrew, she says, understands that the issues at stake are larger than himself. "This is about every other pastor and chaplain who will face this down the road," she says, which is why her husband "is the right person to go through this. He knows what he is fighting, and he's got no fear."
No fear, but in truth, an anger - not at any individual, Andrew says, but "at a situation." He's learning, he says, "to take that to God in prayer. And there is peace - not a solution, but peace. I don't know where all that's going to go. But it's like Mary's prayer: 'Let it be done to me, according to your word.'"
Meanwhile, driving down the highway, he passes the same blue, flashing lights he used to stand in the glow of. He knows there is death there. Knows he could do something - and realizes that, for now, he can't.
So, he drives on, praying God will restore his missing piece. For his own sake, and the sake of those he used to serve.
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