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Chaplaincy Program Aims to Heal Milwaukee Communities

2015 is shaping up to be one of the most violent Milwaukee has suffered in years. Already, there have been 86 homicides—more than double the number this time last year. Then, there are the hundreds of shootings that have wounded people- they’re up 23 percent. In response to the violence, a new chaplaincy program is taking shape. 

It trains ordinary believers how to console people and ease conditions that can cause misery. Those involved don’t believe police should be the only ones responding.

When Richard Schwoegler looks at Milwaukee’s homicide numbers, he says it’s time for the faith community to get to work.

“A lot of the things we’re asking police to do really isn’t their job. I mean it’s not their job to change people. That’s our job as a community and as a faith based group,” Schwoegler says.

Several years ago, Schwoegler started Faith Builders Community Team. Members of that team along with other faith leaders have been meeting with Milwaukee police to learn about problems with the goal of helping communities heal. He says it was out of those interactions that his idea to create a chaplaincy program grew.

Earlier this summer, he teamed with the Salvation Army to train more than 50 people, some clergy but mainly ordinary folks, on how police work at crime scenes and how to assist people who’ve just experienced devastation.

“Those individuals will be called out to help minister in whatever ways they can. They can help with funeral expenses,…we come into an area like this and they live next to a house that doesn’t have any furniture in it, or they live in a house that doesn’t have any furniture, well we come with all those resources to the table saying OK, let’s wrap around you. Let’s figure out how we can help you in any way we can. And then the spiritual end comes in after that,” Schwoegler says.

Schwoegler says the spiritual end is a willingness to talk with people about their deeply-held beliefs, not to beat anyone over the head with religion. So far, at least one police district has summoned the chaplains. They were called after a 15-year-old boy was shot in the stomach.

“Just you pray. Just pray as you’re going there,” Schwoegler says.

The chaplaincy program is two pronged. There is the reactive element – ministering to people at the crime scene. Then there’s the proactive component.

Schwoegler’s group has adopted the Clarke Square Neighborhood on Milwaukee’s near south side. Every Saturday morning they canvass Washington St. between 11th and 20th picking up trash, knocking on doors and handing out food. One of the street team members is James Haley.

“The whole reason we’re out here is to be able to build relationships with people, identify some of those root issues that are going on. And then help empower them to make a difference in their life, and then to move on to the next level in their life. So we want them to be able to be inspired and kind of push on themselves and then have them come out and do the same thing we’re doing so that it can kind of be a domino effect,” he says.

Haley hasn’t yet gone through the chaplain training program, but he says he plans to this fall.

Rich Schwoegler, the guy leading the movement, says he’s convinced the best way to promote healing and change is to continuously show up for people in their everyday lives not just for a vigil or march after tragedy strikes.

“They’re so used to churches coming and doing things like doing a big event but really never changing what’s going on within the community, so one of the things that God has really laid on my heart is to become part of the community,” Schwoegler says.

Schwoegler hopes Milwaukee’s new chaplaincy program will eventually become a national model.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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