GTS Builds Ministry with New York First Responders

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To foster good relationships with Chelsea neighbors and to provide students with opportunities in creative ministries, General Theological Seminary (GTS) has been pursuing a new ministerial partnership with the New York City Fire Department's Emergency Medical Services (EMS). The relationship includes providing first responders in FDNY Station 7, located just two blocks from the seminary, with pastoral companionship, space for events, and invitations to participate in worship in the seminary's Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

During the 2012-13 academic year, two Master of Divinity students, John Bethell and Stefanie Wilson, are pursuing their field education as chaplains to EMS first responders, under the supervision of the Rev. Stephen Harding, an Episcopal priest, FDNY chaplain and GTS alumnus. Another M.Div. student, Andrew Goldhor, is volunteering as a chaplain. Their ministry includes visiting station houses, befriending EMS first responders, accompanying them in EMS ambulances to scenes of emergency, and ministering to individuals and families in crisis.

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and the nor'easter which beset New York City the following week, the three seminarians were quickly responding alongside emergency medical technicians and paramedics to reach out to those struggling. Once transportation was running, Wilson trekked up to Station 16 in Harlem to minister to the first responders. "One of my roles as chaplain is to listen to their stories, giving spiritual and emotional support to those who do the necessary work of the world. They have a hard job that is emotionally draining and sometimes thankless." She heard stories of climbing 15 floors to aid persons in distress and of carrying a pregnant woman down many flights of unlit stairs. When asked how she was led to this ministry she responded, "Within the gates of the Seminary I have been blessed to work in the Chapel and get a wonderful liturgical education. I wanted to learn more about chaplaincy and how to be with people and walk with them, celebrate with them or cry with them."

Bethell pioneered the field education placement with the FDNY and is now in his second year of ministry. For the Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, Bethell gave his senior sermon during the Seminary's Community Eucharist and invited FDNY first responders to attend the service. The gospel text was Luke 4:14-21, in which Jesus reads from the prophecy of Isaiah and then proclaims, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Bethell compared the reconciliation ministry of Jesus, through healing the blind, caring for the poor, and freeing the captives, to the work of the EMS first responders.

"In my work with EMS, I have witnessed women and men turn their daily work into a sacrament: the absolute care given to people in need, to people who are dying. Some of the most forgotten people in our fair city are treated like human beings by total strangers." Many of the first responders are not Christians, he noted, "but by the test of the Gospel, there are those who would never call themselves Christians who follow Christ more closely than we do."  Here is a link to Bethell's sermon.

The Prayers of the People for the service, written by Br. Max Kolbe, SSF, an M.Div. Middler, included a special prayer for FDNY first responders:

We remember with grateful hearts those who serve as first responders, especially fire fighters and EMTs, whose vocation often calls them to tend to human frailty. By their inspiration, and by St. Luke's, may we find the grace to serve you through service to others. Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

The prayers also included remembrance of Lenny Joiner, age 31, a paramedic who died last summer on a mountain climbing trip in Colorado, a remembrance meaningful to the first responders who were cared for by the Seminary in the first days of their grief. The funeral for Joiner, an Episcopalian, was held at St. Michael's Episcopal Church uptown and the reception followed at GTS. "It was touching to see how quickly we here at General sprang into action to open ourselves up to another institution to serve Chelsea and beyond," Bethell said. "The reception was well attended with so many who would normally not find themselves inside a religious institution. Here at General, they were welcomed as though this was their home. Because it is."