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Police officer leans on Catholic faith during Ferguson crisis

Among the iconic images of the 9/11 tragedy, photographs of policemen and firefighters stand out: The first-responders were entering the doomed World Trade Center as most everyone else was filing out.

They embraced the danger of the moment, most going to their ultimate deaths, because the job requires it. First-responders sign up for this risk; they accept it as part of their service.

Understanding this characteristic is important; they willingly head toward danger, while most others flee.

Similarly, in the situation that has become known as simply, "Ferguson," Sgt. John Wall of the St. Louis County Police Department knew in the second week of August that the time had come to stand up and be counted. Peaceful protests after the police-officer shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 had devolved into rioting and looting.

A QuikTrip near the shooting site had been looted and burned. Police had lobbed tear gas and shot rubber bullets to disperse crowds, presumably while real bullets flew in their direction. The situation was fraught with danger.

But did John Wall think twice about going into it? Nope.

"I volunteered," he said, on a recent morning at a South County coffee shop.

Say what?

"I volunteered; it was kind of 'all hands on deck,' so everybody had to work it at some time," he explained, matter-of-factly. He added, "I was fortunate enough to work it the entire time."

Let those words sink in: "fortunate ... enough ... to ... work ... it .... the ... entire ... time."

So, Wall, a 50-year-old married father of a teenager, not only volunteered for duty, willfully taking the risk, but counted himself as fortunate for being there.

This from a man who in 12-hour shifts on his two weeks of voluntary duty was spit on, was hit by rocks, bricks and bottles of urine, and was berated — just berated, protesters calling him every name in the book.

"In those two weeks, I was called more things than in the 25 years I've been in this business," said Wall, who became a police officer in 1989 and joined the county force in 1998. "I've worked narcotics, I've worked homicide and I've never been talked to like that. Ever."

In those moments, his Catholic faith guided Wall, particularly the part about loving thy neighbor.

"Faith comes into every aspect of this job," said Wall, a convert to Catholicism in 1991. "You have to forgive. I can't personally hold a grudge against any of these people; they were not screaming at me as an individual. I understand, and most of us understand, they're looking at a uniform and not a face. They don't know me and everything that I stand for.

"You have to have forgiveness in your own heart."

Faith at the forefront 

Wall and fellow officers leaned on the pastoral care of county police chaplains throughout the Ferguson ordeal. Chaplains started each shift with a prayer before the officer's role call and briefing at the police command center. Catholic priests such as Father Mike Boehm, Father Joe Weber and Father John Patrick Day served among chaplains of many religions.

In a ministry of presence, they kibitzed with officers about the normal things in life: How's the family? Have you quit smoking? How about those Cardinals?

"They just hung out and talked," said Wall, who has counted Boehm as a friend since meeting him in 1989, explaining, "You're extremely focused on what's going on, and the last thing you want to do is get involved in a deep, serious conversation. So, you're shooting the breeze, telling jokes, anything to relieve the tension.

"No one went to church for two weeks either; you're working the whole time. So, it was very helpful to have the chaplains there."

The prospect of having Mass or other religious services at the command post was out of the question. Work consumed the officers, for one, and it wasn't safe anyway. Bomb threats prompted Governor Jay Nixon to call out the National Guard to protect the command center and make it a safe haven for officers.

On the front lines

The scene of the unrest on the quarter-mile stretch of West Florissant was unsafe. A native St. Louisan and graduate of Ritenour High School, Wall describes the venom directed at him and other officers in Ferguson as "unbelievable," particularly since he knew, or at least recognized, some of the people hurling insults. He worked as a midnight watch commander in nearby Jennings until this past April, so he was familiar with the locals.

"The people we took it from where people I had seen before working in Jennings, people I had good relations with," he said, adding that he gave those people the benefit of the doubt. "There were people that just got caught up in the heat of the moment."

The protesters "came from all walks of life — young, old, ministers," he said, noting that one woman among the latter "really laid into me, saying things like how we mistreat people, how we beat people, how we should be ashamed of ourselves, and all the people that I've killed. I was just looking at her. I haven't killed anybody. I haven't fired my gun in 25 years as a police officer. Been shot at, though.

"I'm thinking, 'You're a person of the cloth.' You'd expect someone in that position to be reasonable. ... You just hope they were caught up in the moment, but you really don't know. I understand they are passionate about their cause."

The cause started with the shooting death of Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and has morphed into much more. While a grand jury hears evidence in the case, with the decision whether to indict Wilson imminent, police officers are portrayed in some quarters as the bad guys. Police brutality and racial profiling have become hot-button issues — Brown was black; Wilson is white. As a result, police officers, their families and their departments have been harassed and threatened, whether in person or on the Internet.

It's a tough time for the men and women in uniform and their families, but Wall's attitude is to grin-and-bear it.

"I tell people that sometimes in life you have to eat a terrible meal, and right now, as a police department, we're eating a terrible meal," Wall said. "You have to eat it with a smile on your face. ... You just have to gut through it."

Good moments

For all of the bad Wall has experienced in Ferguson, he also has experienced much good, starting with people closest to him.

"There was a lot of support from family members, friends and people of the parish," said Wall, who belongs to a parish in South County.

For instance?

"My neighbor cut my grass for two weeks," he said. "I went outside one day and couldn't believe it. That was huge for me. I couldn't do it. ... Things like that. It was humbling."

He described as "touching" a mini-food drive that his daughter, her high school friends and parishioners had "unbeknownst to me."

"I came home ... and the living room was full of protein bars, cases of water, sports drinks, energy drinks, packs of nuts, anything you could throw in your pockets because you were standing out there all day," said Wall, who rarely had a break, if any at all.

Further, wearing his uniform, he's been thanked him for being a police officer.

"That has never happened before," he said, adding that it happened just a few days previous as he walked in Clayton. "A guy in a pickup truck rolled down his window and said, 'Thanks for being a cop.'"

He's received notes on his patrol car, and had diners pick up his tab at a restaurant on The Hill.

"I was shocked," he said. "Twenty-five years, and that never happened before."

Perhaps most telling, protesters expressed concern for his safety when they left before peaceful protests morphed into tense standoffs as daylight turned into night. While they retreated to the safety of their homes, cops stayed out there.

The future 

Like everyone else, Wall is anxious to get through whatever happens surrounding the indictment, so that work can begin to bridge the gap between police and parts of the Ferguson community, and to apply lessons that the police department has learned in the ordeal, including how to better connect with residents in communities they serve and protect.

In the meantime, Wall's wife and daughter worry about his safety in Ferguson, as many loved ones of officers have worried since August.

"My family has worried way more than I'd like them to," Wall said, adding, "I know how to take care of myself and take care of my people. They don't need to worry about me."

Thoughts of his wife and daughter are with Wall at all times; he has only to look at the two rings he wears on the little finger of his right hand. From his wife, he has a ring with crosses. From his daughter, he has a Rosary ring. Friends tease him about wearing pinkie rings, jokingly calling him a mobster, but he uses the Rosary ring to pray a mystery as he drives to work. He also carries a Rosary in his duty bag, hands out St. Michael the Archangel prayer cards and wears a St. Michael pendant that his wife gave him 24 years ago. St. Michael is the patron saint for policemen, and even non-Catholic officers wear the medals and carry the prayer cards in their pockets.

"Almost every policeman will have a religious trinket of some kind," Wall said. "Faith is huge in the police department, and in the military, too. It's a big presence.

"Like a minister, a policeman is there for good." 

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