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Frank Gray

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For $160 you can be a chaplain, sort of

Last spring, at the urging of her pastor, Nina Alonzo Ochoa and her husband agreed to attend a chaplaincy program in Indianapolis.

It was simple. Fill out an application with your name, address, telephone number and birth date and pay $160 and you would get a seven-page booklet. Then, after sitting through about three hours of lectures on two different days, the candidates would go through a graduation ceremony and get a patch and an identification card that indicates they are chaplains.

Ninety-one people took part in the program that April weekend, Ochoa said.

But Ochoa became suspicious. The seminars were all taught in Spanish, and she was really taught nothing, she said. She was, however, told that with her badge she would have access to jails and prisons and hospitals, anywhere they wanted to go. The new chaplains, she said, were also told if they were stopped by the police, they could show the officer their chaplain ID.

It does raise a legitimate question. Can anyone go to a seminar, get an ID and claim to be a chaplain?

Rusty York, Fort Wayne’s police chief, said he had heard of the program, which operates under the name U.S. Christian Chaplain Association. He said his department had been invited to send officers to a graduation ceremony for one of the seminars in Fort Wayne recently. York called that a brazen attempt to have police lend an air of legitimacy to the program.

York was also concerned that there may have been people posing as Marion County officers during an earlier seminar in Indianapolis.

“We’re looking at it as a racket,” York said. “We find it so suspicious we are investigating.”

In fact, York said, it is targeted at the Hispanic community and the chaplain IDs seemed to be pitched as get out of jail free cards.

The IDs, York said, wouldn’t be recognized or accepted by anyone.

The Fort Wayne Police Department has one primary chaplain who coordinates several other volunteer chaplains. They are all ordained ministers, York said.

“We use them for death notifications and offer assistance to families,” York said. “Our chaplains are paid nothing, they don’t get badges and they can’t run red lights.”

Meanwhile, Dick Sievers, the main chaplain with the sheriff’s department, said he wouldn’t accept any such chaplain ID either.

Sievers said any ministers who want to make what are called pastoral visits at the jail must fill out an application, provide two forms of ID, a copy of their ordination papers and write a letter on their church stationery requesting the right to make visits. Then they are issued a photo ID that is kept by Sievers and used only while they are in the jail.

If a pastor is not on Sievers’ list, he doesn’t get in. “If you’re the pope (and you’re not on the list) you’re not coming in,” Sievers said. Even pastors on Sievers’ list can’t get in unless Sievers is there to admit them.

It makes you wonder, what good is the $160 program and the IDs?

We spoke to an Andres Mora, who identified himself as the national coordinator for training. He said no one who goes through the six-hour program gets a badge, just an ID. Badges are given to church pastors. He said the IDs are used for people to identify themselves as chaplains on the streets and in people’s homes.

He said the program is aimed at Hispanics because other Americans have other means of being trained.

Meanwhile, the chaplain’s ID that Ochoa got last April expires Dec. 1.

To renew the ID for another year, she said, she would have to pay another $160.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter (@FrankGrayJG).

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