‘A ministry of presence’

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Memoir traces grieving widow’s path to warden service ministry

LINCOLNVILLE – Personal tragedy set Kate Braestrup on a path to ministry, putting her in a position to comfort others who suddenly find themselves in the grip of ineffable grief.

On the spring morning in 1996 that her husband, Maine State Police Trooper Drew Griffith, was killed by a truck that slammed into his cruiser a mile from their home, Braestrup felt as if her own life had also run its course.

“I just literally couldn’t imagine life without him,” she recalled. But the mother of four young children realized that “time wasn’t stopping, and I became very aware of it, minute by minute.”

Now in her sixth year as chaplain of the Maine Warden Service, tragedies like the one she endured remain a big part of her life.

Braestrup, 45, shows up at the scene of drownings, snowmobile crashes and search and rescue efforts for hunters and hikers lost in the woods, comforting survivors and sometimes the wardens themselves.

Braestrup calls what she does “a ministry of presence.” Or as she writes in her new memoir, “Here If You Need Me,” (Little Brown, $23.99), the job “requires me mostly to just show up, shut my mouth and be.”

Although laced with tragedy, the book is breezy and humorous – and uplifting. To preserve confidentiality, she has changed the names of victims, survivors and, in most cases, wardens. She also altered geographic locations and other details.

A trim, vivacious woman with curly brown hair and gray-green eyes who looks and acts younger than her age, Braestrup said her midlife entry into the clergy and law enforcement was an outgrowth of her husband’s death.

Griffith planned to attend seminary after retiring from the state police and begin a second career as a minister; Braestrup made her husband’s dream her own.

Religion had played little part in Braestrup’s life while growing up in Washington, D.C. Her journalist-father was nominally Lutheran but didn’t attend church; her mother was, at most, agnostic.

When she and Griffith were married by a Methodist minister in the Catholic chapel at Georgetown University, her alma mater, “it was the first overtly religious service I actually participated in.”

Two year after her husband’s death, Braestrup entered Bangor Theological Seminary and went on to be ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister.

But her calling was not a traditional church. During her studies, Braestrup gravitated to law enforcement, riding on patrol with members of various police agencies as part of an independent study of the spiritual dimensions of police work.

Instead of landing a police job, Braestrup was hired by the warden service. As one who doesn’t hunt or fish, she had only a limited idea of what wardens did and wondered why they might need a chaplain.

“I might have asked the same question folks so often ask of me: What does a warden chaplain do? Bless the moose?” she wrote.

It turns out that her service is no walk in the park. Maine’s 125 game wardens are responsible for enforcing state laws in a vast area that includes 33,000 square miles – mostly forested – as well as more than 6,000 lakes and ponds. And they are usually first on the scene when backcountry tragedies strike.

Braestrup is only the second member of the Maine Warden Service to hold the post of chaplain, whose creation she credits to a push by wardens themselves.

“They said the people at the scene deserve a higher standard of care than we can give them,” she recalled. “They created this. I happen to fill it at the moment, but this is their thing.”

It’s rare for a state fish and game agency to have a chaplain, according to Col. Tom Santaguida, who heads the Maine Warden Service. Delaware has had a chaplain program for years and Georgia launched one this year. New Hampshire has a part-time retiree who serves as chaplain and some states rely on other law enforcement agencies for chaplain services.

Although she is not a sworn officer and carries no weapon, Braestrup delights in the uniform she wears when headed out in the field.

Her green warden service jacket and cap are embroidered with the word “Chaplain.” Under the high-buttoned collar of her black shirt, she slips a piece of white vinyl that also identifies her as clergy but that she can easily pop off when dealing with someone who is not Christian or has had a bad experience with religion.

Although she works full-time, her schedule can be erratic. There are days when she’s summoned by cell phone and transported by float plane and 4-wheel-drive vehicle to a remote search and rescue site in the North Woods.

Other days may find her providing counseling and pastoral care to wardens after emotionally wrenching encounters. The dive team, whose grim task is to search for bodies that may have lain unrecovered for weeks or months, is a particular focus of her work.

“We dive in flood-stage rivers, we dive under the ice, we dive in cold, dark waters,” said Capt. Joel Wilkinson, the team’s leader. “Kate provides the liaison to the family that allows the divers to focus on the job at hand.”

In addition to serving as a buffer for distraught friends and relatives, Braestrup meets with team members after they’ve completed their dives to talk through the experience and help them deal with the stress that accompanies their work, Wilkinson said.

She also does educational work, instructing wardens and police about how to perform death notifications and deal with grieving survivors.

Braestrup’s own life, meanwhile, has taken a new course.

She has remarried and now lives in Lincolnville with her husband, Simon van der Van, her four children and his two.

And yes, she did on one occasion bless a moose. It happened when she was in Presque Isle and arrived at the scene of one of Maine’s all-too-frequent car-moose collisions. The motorist was unhurt, but the big animal was mortally injured.

At the driver’s behest, Braestrup placed her hand on the moose as it raised its head and then died.

“I said this little prayer, and then I thought, ‘Oh my god, I just did last rites on a moose!”‘

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