Benjamin Pate never wanted to step inside a jail, even for a visit.
“I always said I would never go to a jail,” he said. “I always said to my kids that if they ever got arrested I wouldn’t visit them because I didn’t want anything to do with the jail.”
These days, Pate, who is an elder at the First Baptist Church of Sun City, spends five days a week at the Manatee County Jail. He’s the chaplain for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. His office is at the jail, where he provides spiritual services for inmates and officers.
He underwent a conversion of sorts in his opinion of jails when his nephew was arrested some years back, and the nephew’s mother, Pate’s sister-in-law, pleaded with him to visit his nephew in jail. Once he visited, he felt that God wanted him to work in jails, and he became a religious volunteer at the Manatee County jail.
“God softened my heart,” he said.
Pate became a volunteer chaplain a few years later — the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office has four volunteer chaplains, one in each district — and became the department’s paid chaplain a few years ago.
Jesus said it: ‘The Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve others.’
“God called me to this job in May of 2013,” he said.
Pate and chaplains for other area law enforcement agencies say that the details of the daily work may be different than a more traditional ministry, but that it is indeed a calling, just like any other ministerial work.
Don Sturiano, the senior pastor at Kingdom Life Christian Church in Bradenton, said that soon after he came to this area he was praying, asking God what he could do to be of service to the community. Suddenly an idea came to him, and he took steps to help organize a program through the Bradenton Police Department. Now, every year, Bradenton cops take local inner-city kids Christmas shopping.
A couple of years after that program started, Sturiano became the chaplain for the department.
One thing that sets a chaplain’s work apart in that he or she has to minister to people of many different faiths, and even to people of no faith. Since the chaplains have deeply felt personal religious beliefs, that can demand an adjustment.
“We try and stay away from religious doctrine,” Pate said. “We deal with the 98 percent of the Bible that doesn’t deal with doctrine,” Pate said. (He stressed that the the 98 percent figured was just a number he used for illustrative purposes, not a studied or accurate percentage.)
For both Pate and Sturiano, being a chaplain means focusing on relationships. That means both relationships between the chaplain and the people he or she serves, and the relationship between those people and their God.
For Pate, the job has some peculiar challenges. He has to be open to the fact the fact that prisoners can undergo sincere religious conversions while they’re incarcerated. But sometimes they’ll pretend to have converted because they learn that members of a certain religion may get, for example, special meals that are a cut above normal jail fare. It’s up to Pate to determine whether an inmate’s conversion is sincere.
Sturiano’s position with the police department is not paid. He goes to to the police station once a week to make himself available to anyone who might needs spiritual services. He occasionally goes on ride-alongs with officers and he listens to the police radio and goes to crime scenes if he thinks he can be useful. All the officers have his cell phone number and they call him with everything from religious and spiritual concerns to job and family problems.
And although they both say that being a chaplain for law enforcement agencies has its differences from church, the essence of the work is the same. It’s all about serving people.
“I enjoy helping people,” Tate said. “My prayer with my wife when we pray every morning is ‘Bless me to bless someone else with the blessings that you have blessed me with.’ ”
“Jesus said it,” Sturiano said. “’The Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve others.’ ”