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Cary Wacker fulfills his calling through service

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Cary Wacker, chaplain with Columbia River Fire & Rescue.To those who don't attend Warren Community Fellowship or fight fires as part of Columbia River Fire & Rescue, odds are Cary Wacker isn't a name most would recognize. He's not listed on the firefighters’ website, nor is he in any of the photographs, but a few minutes' visit with Wacker has a tendency to change a life forever.

Wacker, 50, has served as a chaplain since 2003, putting his experience as a youth pastor, counselor and biblical scholar to work in serving the firefighters and the community.

He's also in charge of men's ministries at Warren Community Fellowship, teaches a handful of groups and classes, and is the former youth pastor at the church. He plans to soon pursue his doctorate of ministry at Western Oregon University, seeking to find ways to rejuvenate the church and overturn the stereotypes and hypocrisy he believes are driving youth away from organized religion.

It's Wacker's heart and desire to help people, he said, that has driven him to the place he's at today. Everything, from his work at the church to the countless experiences as a chaplain, has been about giving back and lending a hand to anyone who needs him.

It wasn't always that way.

Start in Scripture

Wacker grew up in eastern Los Angeles and his teenage years weren’t exactly holy. His parents divorced when Wacker was 12, and he fell into drug and alcohol use as he progressed through high school.

Wacker's family went through a major transition when he was 17 years old. His mother remarried, and that's when things started to change. The man his mother married was a Christian, and the family began attendance at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif., in February 1981.

“Chuck Smith was the pastor there, and he made a comment,” Wacker recalled. “He said, ‘Look at your life now, and if you're not fully satisfied with your life right now, let Jesus be Lord. Confess your sins. Give him lordship. Start with a clean slate. If He doesn't fulfill your life, go back to doing what you're doing and call me a liar.’”

The proclamation had a huge and immediate effect on Wacker, who ended things with his girlfriend — telling her he was going to “try this Jesus thing” — and never looked back. He recalled eating, sleeping and drinking the Bible for two years while working as a pressman and going to school to be a fireman.

As time passed, he was eventually asked to step into a leadership role at his church. He became a youth pastor in 1988, which started a 26-year journey in church ministry. Now, he looks back at the hardships he endured as a youth and is able to apply his experiences to his work at the church and as a chaplain.

“I believe God has a plan for everybody, and part of that plan was allowing adversity to shape me and prepare me for ministry,” Wacker said. “Working with children and families especially, there isn't a whole lot that they're going through that I haven't gone through or been exposed to. I can go backwards and help lead them through some of that adversity with faith, hope and confidence.”

In the years that followed, Wacker continued his work as a pressman, printing everything from medical journals to material for Disneyland. On occasion, it seemed the door to firefighting had closed.

At that time in California, the vision requirements to be a firefighter were strict, disallowing contact lenses and forcing Wacker to abandon his goal because of bad eyesight.

Years later, though, he realized that "God's will" for him to work as a firefighter would take shape in a different time and place than he'd imagined.

Discovering God’s plan

Once he arrived in Oregon in 2001 to work at Warren Community Fellowship as the youth and children's pastor, that purpose became a little clearer.

Jack Mount, the previous chaplain, retired in 2003, leaving an opening to be filled. Alan Takemoto, a captain with Columbia River Fire & Rescue, asked Wacker to fill in. His background in firefighting from his schooling in the 1980s, and a heart for helping those around him, pushed Wacker to accept. He started in spring 2003.

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Cary Wacker, right, stands with Columbia River Fire & Rescue Division Chief Ron Youngberg. Wacker, an associate pastor at Warren Community Fellowship, started as the fire agency's chaplain in 2003.Oregon requirements are different than California’s and the regulations have softened, allowing him to pursue firefighter work after he'd moved to the place God wanted him to be. To more strongly connect with the firefighters, he decided to become a volunteer as well, and has continued to volunteer for the last 11 years.

As a chaplain, Wacker’s duties stretch far and wide. Primarily he serves as a pastor and counselor for the firefighters, but he reaches out to the community as well. It is his job to give death notifications, and he is on scene in any critical or fatal incident that requires emotional support. For the firefighters, he gives stress debriefings and training for any major disasters, as well as weddings and premarital counseling.

Stepping into a chaplain role, where much of the duties are difficult and weighty, Wacker says that his time as a pastor was a major help as he has adjusted to the new position. He's even performed memorial services, regardless of whether the family attends a church. In addition, Warren Community Fellowship leaders, as a service to the community, also volunteer the church building for funerals, providing the catering and the service for free.

When it comes to death notifications, Wacker said some seasons are simply harder than others. Regardless of the frequency in which he's needed, though, it's never an easy task.

“I give them the facts,” he said. “If they see me and they don't know me, they know something is bad. I'll tell them, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, but your loved one has died.’ I'll tell them straight up, and give them as much detail as I can, and then allow them room to grieve. I then walk them through all of the steps.”

Wacker stays at a scene as long as he is needed to provide support, helping those swamped in grief so that they can transition toward healing. The difficulty is to find a balance between maintaining composure and building a connection to guide people through a trying time, in what Wacker called a “very intense and emotional experience.”

The intensity ebbs and flows, some months being filled with difficult calls and others being silent, but Wacker said he is deeply thankful and dependent on his faith to get him through the challenges of seeing so much heartbreak and pain.

“It wears on you over time, and it depends on the circumstances,” he said. “Kids are the hardest. I can say, if I wasn't a Christian, there's no way I could do it. If I didn't have the hope of eternity, there's no way.”

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