Before coming to Holy Communion, Fr. Sandy served as chaplain to the fire department in Roanoke, Virginia. He recently returned to Roanoke to preach at the funeral of one of his former chiefs. This homily was delivered at First Baptist Church of Roanoke on June 9, 2016.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Playing hearts with Jeff Beckner and his crew was the strangest job interview I’ve ever had.
The Deputy Chief had warned me that respect in the fire service is earned, not given. He could appoint me department chaplain, but the guys in the companies would decide whether or not to accept me. On the second night of my trial period, I met Battalion Chief Jeff Beckner.
Jeff had very little interest in modern, technological pastimes. Roanoke firefighters had been playing cards in their station houses for more than a hundred years; if cards were good enough then, they were good enough now. “Father Sandy,” he began, not yet having promoted me to “Hey, buddy.” “Do you know how to play hearts?” “No,” I replied honestly, “but I bet I’m about to find out.”
For the next two hours or so, I learned how to count hearts, when to trump, and what it meant to shoot the moon. More importantly, I learned something about my new friend. I learned about his wife, Julie, whom he simply adored. I learned about his daughter, Kara, then aspiring to art school. I learned about his son, Zach, then serving the city as an emergency dispatcher. As our relationship grew over the next three years, Jeff took me to the e-911 center on a number of occasions. He said that it was important for me to learn how everything worked, but his fatherly pride was obvious, and he never seemed interested in going when Zach was off duty.
But, back to that first night: Just as we were about to claim our last tricks and say our good-byes, the alarm bell rang and the dispatcher’s voice – unfortunately, not Zach’s – crackled over the radio: “Structure fire, 2626 Westover Avenue, time out 2218.” Seconds later, we were screaming down Franklin Road heading for the far side of Grandin. Knowing Jeff as so many of us do, it goes without saying that we got to the scene quickly.
When we arrived at the fire ground, I figured that the safest place for me was next to the chief – it was that night, but with Jeff that could not always be assumed. His gear was always worn, his helmet was always covered with soot, and his shield was always melted around the edges. Respect in the fire service is earned, not given, and even as a chief, Jeff led from the front lines. When he applied for promotion to Deputy Chief of Operations for Roanoke City, I asked him how he would fare in the office rather than out on the street. He replied, “I am still going to go to most of the fires, but I think that I can do something meaningful for the guys if I take on this new role.” That was Jeff; the guys always came first.
The Westover fire was on the “Charlie Side” in “Division 2,” which meant that we couldn’t see very much from the command post. Firefighters moved in and out, commands were issued, lines were laid, but I had no idea what was really going on. Sensing my inexperience, Jeff asked me during overhaul if I wanted to go in and take a look. “Do you think the chief will mind,” I asked innocently, referring to the head of the department who had appointed me only a few weeks prior. “I’m the chief,” Jeff retorted.
Assigning one of his rookies to give me a tour, Jeff wrapped me in his own turnout coat and put his own blackened helmet on my head. My naiveté ended quickly. The apartment in which the fire had burned was unrecognizable. The residents’ personal effects were all gone, the studs were exposed, the ceiling was down, and the windows were blown out. Everything was black and alligatored, dripping with steamy water.
The men and women who had been counting my hearts two hours before were now stealing my heart: They faced in a moment more danger than I had experienced in the sum total of my life, and they did it all for people that they did not know – for people who would never be able to thank them. Jesus said that a man has no greater love than to give his life for his friends, but these people loved even more than that: They would have willingly given their lives for strangers. I was grateful to be wearing Jeff’s grizzled, barrel-chested coat that evening, and his sooty helmet. He had seen it all, and the scent of his seasoned gear offered the reassurance that everything was going to be alright.
My relationship with Jeff grew much deeper in the years that followed, but I knew from that first night that he was going to become one of my greatest mentors. In a way, I was one of his rookies, being introduced to the tightly knit family that is the fire service. No one was braver than Jeff, no one was stronger, no one was more loyal to his men or to his family. I shall miss him very much.
But, for people of the resurrection, hope is never lost. When we reach the endpoint of human strength, when we fight diseases that we cannot see, we find ourselves wrapped up in a divine love that exceeds even the greatest human love. It is a love that knows suffering and death first-hand, a love that has seen it all, a love that assures us everything will be alright.
Jesus said: I have gone to prepare a place for you. I have gone to prepare a place for you, and I will come again, and I will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also. Thanks be to God for that.
The citizens of Roanoke City and Botetourt County, Virginia, could count on Chief Jeff Beckner, and so could we – his family, his friends, his brothers and sisters in the fire service. If we can find the faith to trust one man that much, then I know we can find the faith to trust the God in whom that man put his own trust – the God who knows us, the God who loves us, and the God who will never leave us alone.