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Cool head, quiet words help in violent times

Emergency volunteers go wherever families need comfort, counsel

It's Robin Wisner's week to be on call, his week to be torn out of deep sleep at 4 a.m. to answer an insistent pager.

It doesn't matter that he's been working all day, because life-and-death struggles erupt whenever they will, and Wisner must be ready to treat the wounded.

But he's not a doctor. At least, not the medical sort. Wisner tends to the soul in times of trauma.

Wisner, pastor of Under the Blood Ministries in Portland, is one of several on-call clergy members who respond to the needs of families at the scenes of shootings, accidental deaths and fires.

As part of the Portland Police Bureau's Crisis Response Team, Wisner and a group of fellow pastors lead teams of on-call comforters Ñ all volunteer, some religious, some not Ñ in a partnership of faith that is now nearly 7 years old.

The team is the brainchild of Victoria Burton, a Portland police officer who saw her colleagues torn between having to do their jobs and wanting to provide help for mourning families. She was there herself 13 years ago, on duty at the scene of a murder-suicide where a teenager had killed his stepfather and then himself.

'The mother came to the scene, and she just collapsed,' Burton recalls. 'As a mother myself, my heart broke for his grieving mother. É There's all this pain and hurt Ñ and still, you must protect the scene of the crime.'

This is where the team steps in. Called to nearly 50 cases per year, its members do the things police can't do: provide comfort, information and counsel.

Crisis Response Team members say much of the work is nonreligious Ñ explaining why an autopsy must be performed (to confirm the cause of death); explaining why the cops won't let you go inside a crime scene (so that evidence won't be contaminated); and why you must wait, sometimes for what seems an eternity, to find out what really happened (because preliminary information can prove to be wrong).

And it doesn't end with the crime scene. Team members stay with families long after the yellow crime-scene tape is gone, even attending funerals and memorial services.

For Wisner, it all comes under the category of 'providing strength. É We who are in the churches so often don't see (grieving families) until the funeral. But they need God when death comes to the door. They need that strong tower, that strong arm to lean on right then.'

It was in that capacity that Wisner visited the James family after Kendra James, 21, was fatally shot May 5 while trying to escape police. The team was there again May 13, at the family's side during the funeral.

Wisner was serving the family on another front Saturday, acting as one of several organizers for a rally at Alberta Park to protest the use of deadly force in the James case. The action was planned by the Albina Ministerial Alliance, of which Wisner is also a member.

Although the two organizations Ñ the crisis team and the ministerial group Ñ intersect in the James case, Wisner says he considers the two roles to be separate. And his primary role on the crisis team, he says, remains comforting the family in mourning.

While many would find it difficult, if not impossible, to think of something useful to say to a family in such a circumstance, Wisner finds himself well-equipped, in part because he has been where they are now. His own son, one of four, was shot to death at 33 last year in a dispute with a friend. At the time, police called Wisner to notify the victim's family, not knowing Ñ because of confusion over names Ñ that Wisner was the victim's father.

Wisner, pained at the memory of it, says he was recovering when January came around again, and with it the anniversary of his son's death. But his loss, he says, has made him ripe for the job at hand: comforting those who are mourning, letting them know, as he says, 'There's going to be a new day.'

Pastor Charles Hunter, a member of the team for four years, also serves as a chaplain for police who have been involved in traumatic events on the job.

At times, it has meant 'working both sides of the street' at a given incident. But Hunter says he never worries about what to say Ñ to officers or to victims.

'Sometimes you don't have to say anything,' he says. 'You just be there for them.'

Diana Wilder of Northeast Portland lost her 45-year-old daughter earlier this year in what police describe as a 'suspicious death.'

She said a Crisis Response Team member was at her door minutes after police verified that her daughter was dead.

'I didn't know what I would do,' she says. 'I didn't know if I could keep it together, and then this lady (team member LaRae Ross) pulled up and told me who she was.

'Now, I'm not heavy into church, but it was like a miracle to me, her showing up like that. Within two minutes she was like someone I hadn't seen in a long time and needed to see. I just held onto her. She kept me from doing something stupid.'

Soon after, Wisner arrived.

'I don't know all of what he said, but I was amazed,' Wilder said. 'I didn't know how much need I was in.'

Wilder said the family was glad to see team members at the funeral. Somehow, she said, it gave her strength:

'My legs felt like rubber, but with Pastor Robin holding my arm, I felt like I could do it.'