Retreat focuses on spiritual support for first responders

A retreat for first-responders had been in the back of Deacon Mark Byington's mind for some time. Events last year in Ferguson brought it to the forefront.

"I always felt there was a need for it," he said.

So, Deacon Byington helped make it happen, reaching out to the White House Jesuit Retreat, and the first-ever retreat for first-responders is just around the corner.

The White House will host St. Michael's Retreat — for police officers, fire fighters, EMTs basically anyone in law enforcement/criminal justice — Monday, Nov. 2 to Wednesday, Nov. 4. The retreat is non-denominational, open to all religions and not just Catholic, and co-ed.

It also qualifies for eight "Interpersonal" credit hours in the Missouri Department of Public Safety's POST Program. Deacon Byington called the credit hours "a huge step forward," adding that it acknowledges a primary factor in the recent Ferguson report.

"The wellness of the officer; that they're in the right frame of mind while they're on duty," he said. "If you want wellness of the officer mentally and physically, it also means spiritually."

Deacon Byington knows of which he speaks; in addition to being a deacon, he's a former police officer. He was senior corporal in the Dallas (Texas) police department, then came to the area as a commissioned officer and trainer with the Mineral College Department of Safety. He currently is an associate professor of criminal justice at Jefferson College, teaching world religion as well. Ordained a deacon in 2010, he covers two parishes: St. Joseph in Bonne Terre and St. Ann in French Village.

"As an officer, I was a regular retreatant," he said. "I'd go away for four days, and it was a silent retreat. That helped me. I didn't have to do anything. I didn't have a phone. I checked on my wife and kids with a call after dinner, but that was it. I was recharged."

Deacon Byington also routinely got together with buddies from the Franklin County Sheriff's Office, who served on the front lines in Ferguson. They talked about their Catholic faith, and how it helped them in their police work.

The group included Capt. Steve Elliott, 58, who died of cancer in August. He set a Christian example by escorting Ferguson protesters on the Franklin County leg of a march from St. Louis to Jefferson City. Initially, they thought he had come to harass or stop the march, but he assured them he came "to serve and protect," as the police motto states.

"He told them, 'I want to work with you and make sure your route is safe and clear,'" Deacon Byington said. "They said, 'You're serious?' It was Capt. Elliott saying, 'I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing: keeping the peace.'"

This approach to policing is akin to the New Testament teaching of "love thy neighbor as thyself," as opposed to the Old Testament teaching of "an eye for eye." Instead of reacting with violence to violence, officers find out the reason behind the violence to understand it so they can address it and prevent it.

"In a sense, you take up the cross, take on the suffering of someone else and actually repair the situation and come out of it in a positive manner — showing compassion," Deacon Byington said.

But an officer or first-responder has to be in the right frame for that, which is where the St. Michael's Retreat comes in.

"Officers need to hear about this, then have some quiet time to think about it," Deacon Byington said.

Jesuit Father Joe Laramie will lead the retreat. A graduate of St. Louis University High School and St. Louis University, he's the middle of three Joe Laramies. His grandfather of that name served in World War II; a cousin with that name has served in Afghanistan. Another cousin is a police officer in his hometown of Florissant. Though not in law enforcement himself, he's familiar with the stresses of the jobs.

"It's important to have well-trained, generous people in these jobs and to give them ongoing spiritual support," he said. "They put their lives on the line as a matter of duty each day. It's stressful. It's dangerous. They need to be of healthy mind and healthy spirit to do their jobs well in the spirit of service and generosity." 

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