Pastor to the Police Valuable Asset to Galveston Police Department
By Lindsay Peyton
When police officers say, “I’ve got your six,” it means they are watching out for each other, they’ve got their friend’s back. Rev. Heather Gates, chaplain for the Galveston Police Department, wants to go a step further. She looks out for the officers’ hearts and minds. “That’s what I’m here for,” she said.
For instance, an officer can step into her office, say they are overwhelmed, and she will listen and do her best to help. Sometimes, she rides along with officers to talk on a drive.
Since Gates started this job full time in 2018, she has grown close to the police. During Hurricane Laura, she even evacuated with an officer and his wife to Houston, grateful to remain with the people she considers her family.
Still, being a police chaplain could not be further from where she expected to find herself when she entered ministry. She said, “Now I think, why didn’t I discover this sooner?”
Gates grew up in Albuquerque and got involved in church in middle school. Youth ministry called her right away. She appreciated the way youth pastors listened to her, valued her opinions and answered her questions. They called on her to become a leader.
“I saw their investment in me, and how it changed me,” Gates recalled. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
She headed to McMurry University, a private Methodist liberal arts college in Abilene, where she majored in history and religion.
Gates wanted to become a youth pastor and joined League City UMC, where she served as youth director for about three and a half years. Then she became director of student ministry at Moody Memorial, about two weeks after Hurricane Ike hit Galveston. She stayed in the post for 10 years.
“I thought I’d only be here for a little while, but Galveston has totally stolen my heart,” she said.
While at Moody, Gates enrolled in seminary at Perkins and became ordained.
“After I was ordained, I toyed with the idea of pastoral care or moving into an associate pastor role,” she said. “But I never, never ever considered police chaplaincy. That wasn’t even on my mind.”
Gates followed a circuitous path to the field. It all started with working late and talking to officers on duty, doing church security.
One night, an officer asked her to go on ride along, but she declined, saying it would be too scary. When he asked again, he added that he envisioned a new approach at Galveston Police Department, one where various people could respond to calls together, including clergy, therapists and social workers.
“He told me, ‘I think you can help get that started,’” Gates recalled.
And while she agreed to go on a ride along with him and other officers on the night shift, she wasn’t completely sold on the idea. It wasn’t until one evening that the sergeant approached her, and everything changed.
“I need to put you to work tonight,” he said. “I need you to go along on a death notification.”
Gates was to help an officer deliver the news to a woman about her own age that her mother had died. Only about two years earlier, Gates lost her own mother.
“Standing with someone who was dealing with a pain I knew so deeply was really powerful,” she recalled. “We got back in the car and the officer started telling me about loss that he’s experienced in his own life.”
Afterwards, they met with other officers for coffee. Usually the other officers would be on their phones or joke around, when they gathered at the end of shift.
“But that night they were all asking about faith and church,” Gates recalled. “I thought, what is happening?”
She drove to the Seawall and sat in the dark. “Okay God, I guess you have a plan for me,” she said. “I’m in. I don’t know what this will look like, but I’m in.”
She started by joining the officers at night, when her day wrapped at Moody UMC. Then, the Permanent Endowment Fund and the City of Galveston joined forces to give her a full-time position as a chaplain for the police department.
Gates started in September, 2018. At first, she said the police department was hesitant about her presence. She had been primarily working with the night crew, and the day time officers were not as sure about her position – or that she would be a good fit.
“They didn’t really know what I was here for,” Gates said. “But the people on night shift were so open to me. I was hugely blessed. That was definitely God’s hand making this all come together.”
Gates moved into her new office – and implemented a new strategy. It started by stocking her office with snacks.
Officers who were reluctant about a chaplain on staff were not as shy about grabbing a bag of chips, Gates explained. And that gave her an opening to ask about their day, strike up a conversation and get to know them.
At the same time, there were officers who needed to talk, but did not necessarily want everybody to know. They could look like they were just getting a snack and stopping for a quick chat, while really gaining the ability to vent and the needed encouragement to make it through the day.
Gates explained that there are a number of reasons police officers are reluctant to ask for assistance, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. “There are so many stigmas attached with officers seeking help,” she said. “They are helpers, so they don’t feel they should go to someone else to get help.”
Or they can be reluctant to trust others, Gates added. Sometimes, officers simply do not want to burden others with the sights they have seen on the job.
Still, holding all the stress inside, all of the trauma from crime scenes, can impact on an officer’s health and well-being. “The most important part of me being here is just giving the officers a safe space,” Gates said. “I’ve had officers come in, close the doors and just cry. It can be something at work or something at home.”
Regardless, she feels privileged to lend an ear and offer a hand. She also connects officers with trusted therapists for more complex issues.
“Most of the time, I spend my days with officers,” Gates said.
One of the most rewarding parts of her job is when an officer shares that he or she felt better simply knowing she was there, ready to help them. “They tell me that it is calming,” she said.
Gates still keeps a foot in the door at Moody – and sometimes invites the officers to come watch her preach. She said her experience at the congregation helped prepare her for the role as police chaplain, even though she would have never known it at the time.
“Being at Moody taught me to be a better listener,” she said. “It taught me I didn’t have to have an answer for everything. Being there, listening and helping them find solutions was just as important.”
The same is true with the officers. They come to her with problems or challenges.
“Most times, there isn’t a quick or easy answer,” she said. “I’m learning to be comfortable with being present – and with that being enough.”
Gates is currently earning a master’s degree in social work online through Tulane University in New Orleans. Being a chaplain has brought her to places she never imagined, including officiating at nine of the officers’ weddings. She has three more on the calendar.
“Just getting to be here has been absolutely amazing,” she said. “I tell the officers that I can’t even put into words what it feels like to be part of this family. God let me part of this, and that is incredible.”