Kelly Sherman-Conroy felt the anguish on the streets following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, concluding that people were aching for more than food and emergency relief.
So the Lutheran leader and Native American activist posted an appeal on Facebook for "clergy, spiritual leaders and mental health leaders who would like to serve as volunteer chaplains."
More than 100 faith leaders have stepped forward, fanning out at events ranging from State Capitol protests to food distributions to a Juneteenth celebration. They serve as compassionate listeners, helping hands and tension diffusers in stressful situations.
"We're not trying to convert anyone," said Sherman-Conway, minister of social justice and advocacy at Nativity Lutheran Church in St. Anthony. "We're around so that people have someone to talk to, if they want. And that happens a lot."
The group, loosely called Interfaith Volunteer Chaplains, can be seen at community events in bright orange shirts with "Chaplain" printed on the backs and with COVID masks on their faces. Their ranks include a minister who worked at the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York and a chaplain who consoled after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Sherman-Conroy said.
They show up only where invited and arrive with no preset agenda, said Sherman-Conroy. Their work has included handing out slices of donated pizza to the hungry at a church, sitting in the shaded grass with an exhausted woman waiting for groceries, and distributing bottles of water at protests while being attentive to the well-being of those taking them.
Before they head to the streets, the chaplains must attend online training led by Sherman-Conroy — essentially a crash course on cultural sensitivity and trauma.
"The whole idea is to send in people trained a bit on how to be around people in trauma, how to be aware of their own actions, who understand the crisis mode of volunteering."
Radar for needs
On Friday afternoon, Sherman-Conroy and several other chaplains headed to the emergency food distribution at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.
She checked in with the other chaplains, then headed to the back of the line of hundreds of people waiting to pick up groceries. She casually made conversation with several, radar up for any unspoken issues.
Colleague Bethany Ringdal, a church planter for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, already was talking with waiting families, keeping the mood positive.
"I have a 1-year-old son, and I spend a lot of time with pregnant ladies in the line," Ringdal explained. "I might ask if they want to sit down. Or if they need something. Or if someone wants me to pray for their baby, I will."
Meanwhile, chaplain Peter Stebinger, a retired Episcopal Church minister, was pushing a pallet stacked with boxes of donated vegetables toward the tents where they would be sorted and handed out.
"We do whatever we're asked to do," explained Sherman-Conroy.
And what they do differs with the assignment. Last Friday, this same group, plus others, were invited to the Juneteenth celebration on Lake Street. They started by handing out water bottles and chatting with folks, but then were asked by organizers to kick off the evening events on stage.
So the entire group climbed up the steps to the stage.
"You'll notice a lot of people here in orange shirts," Sherman-Conroy told the crowd. "We're chaplains. We're here if you just need someone to talk to."
Eric Won, one of the organizers of the Juneteenth event, stood watching with a smile.
"They're just gifts," said Won, of Unite and Rebuild MSP Project, a coalition of community groups that sponsored the Lake Street Juneteenth event. "It's a hard job to work with this trauma and see people through. They're not political. They don't have an agenda. They're simply there to comfort."
New type of chaplain
Being visible in crowds doesn't necessarily mean people rush forward to bare their souls. Most of the time, these chaplains are doing other volunteer work and handing out water as an entree into conversations. People share with them hesitantly or after checking them out, they said. Only then comes the opportunity to help process their trauma.
"We're seeing all stages of grief," said Sherman-Conroy. "Extreme anger. Sadness. I had someone who couldn't quit laughing; it was just nerves.
"It's grief, active grief, that is played out individually and communally," she said. "And it's everywhere."
Stebinger worked with hundreds of trauma victims while volunteering as a chaplain for nine months at the World Trade Center site in 2001 and 2002. He provided emotional support mainly for city employees, such as firefighters and police officers.
"I learned that recovery from a disaster can take months, not days," Stebinger said. "Every single time I work, someone talks to me. It reminds me why I'm here."
Chaplain Anna Mercedes, a theology professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, said being part of this group has been emotionally rewarding and a learning experience. She recalled volunteering at Holy Trinity shortly after the violent protests scorched Lake Street and getting worried as some people waiting in line started to surge forward.
So she gestured for another chaplain, Holy Trinity deacon David Rojas Martinez, to help.
"He said something like, 'I'm so glad you're here. Thanks for coming. We will work this out,' " Mercedes said, remembering his calm tone of voice. "He said that over and over, like a mantra. … And things started to calm down."
Those are precisely the kinds of skills that Sherman-Conroy hopes the chaplains will bring to their posts as they continue their work in the Twin Cities.
"We want to lead through our actions," she said.