As a member of the Grand Rapids Police Department’s Clergy on Patrol contingent, Pastor Sean May was on a ride-along in mid-April when the officer he was assigned to was dispatched to the scene of what turned out to be a double shooting.
“When we arrived, we learned one person died and the other survived,” said May, youth minister at Seymour Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. As lights from several police cruisers lit the neighborhood, May stayed in the car. At one point, police told families and friends of the victims that a pastor was nearby. “I’ve talked to other families and counseled and prayed with some of them, but this time they declined,” said May.
May is one of seven members of Clergy on Patrol, which was first offered in 2007 and only lasted a couple years. Then in 2021, under the guidance of Capt. Terry Dixon, the program began again with the goal of including faith leaders in circumstances involving law enforcement.
For the most part, said Dixon, clergy are paired with officers willing to have them along on patrol. In May’s case, he was paired with another Seymour member who is an officer.
“We wanted to reach out to local clergy of multiple faiths to do ride-alongs,” said Dixon, a member of Madison Square CRC in Grand Rapids. “Over time, the clergy have a chance to build relationships and offer their unique perspectives to the community.”
To join the program, clergy must undergo a background check and complete a five-hour training. They are then asked to volunteer a minimum of five hours once a month to ride along with a Grand Rapids police officer.
May has learned some things about policing during his ride-alongs. Among them, he said, is how much officers discuss and assess how they have handled incidents after they’ve happened.
“They are always discussing how they can best show up to serve the people where they are at. They really want to have a positive impact,” May said.
Steve Pierce, senior minister of Central Reformed Church, joined the program when it re-started in 2021. “I have learned the importance of everyday police work in our communities and how critical it is to build trust and positive interactions between the police and neighborhoods,” he said.
He recalls the day when he and a patrol officer responded to a domestic disturbance call. “A young mother had been listening to podcasts of an internet ‘apostle’ and came to believe the end of the world was imminent,” said Pierce.
The mother had her young boys destroy all the electronics in the house with hammers—computers, laptops, TVs, cell phones, etc. As the police tried to calm the mother, Pierce took the boys aside and told them they had done nothing wrong.
“When I met with the mother, I listened carefully and gently responded to her. This helped to calm her down considerably,” he said.
Clergy on Patrol members meet once a month for lunch at Central Reformed Church. May said he looks forward to the gatherings because clergy have the chance to share their experiences with one another.
And sharing those experiences at church has encouraged Seymour church members to see how complex the role of policing can be and to look for how they may be of service, especially helping those who are homeless, May said.
“We did collect items for GRPD’s Homeless Outreach Team. I approached the police department in early January (of this year) to ask for a list of their most needed/requested winter items. We then published that list in our weekly bulletin and set up a drop-off point for members to bring in donations over the next four weeks,” he said. “Being part of (Clergy on Patrol) I’ve been able to build a bridge between our church and the police.”