Chaplain's Past Helps Keep Peace in the Present
While working with the Martinsville Police Department, Chaplain Russ Cockrum drew on his life experiences to help keep peace during a potentially volatile demonstration.Chaplain Russ Cockrum was a protester and a partier, addicted to hard drugs and alcohol. He was also a U.S. Army veteran, a university student, but was more than ready to spew self-righteous hatred and proclaim the rhetoric of the Communist Party at any given moment.
“I was an angry young radical in my teens and 20s,” Cockrum says. “I believed that Communism and the practices of Mao Zedong were the answers to all of our problems . . . I thought I had all the answers, and when my father told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, it only made me angrier.”
Following the May 25th death of George Floyd while in police custody, when protesters organized in the city square of Martinsville, Indiana, Cockrum was right in the middle of it — exactly where God wanted him. Only now, as an AGUSM missionary with Chaplaincy Ministries, Cockrum was a force for peace.
USING BAD FOR GOOD
After years of living a life of drugs and spewing hatred, Cockrum and his wife, Judy, were paying the price. By 1978, in Russ’ words, their lives were a total failure. In desperation, they turned to God. He miraculously restored their minds, released them from their addictions, and guided them into pastoral ministry.
After serving as pastors for 18 years, the Cockrums were endorsed as chaplains in 1999. The couple became U.S. missionaries with the Assemblies of God in 2001 and launched HonorBound Motorcycle Ministry. Russ also has gone through Veterans Administration training to become a peer support specialist, has served as a reserve police officer, and currently serves as chaplain to AG Chaplaincy missionary families.
When the Martinsville Police Department learned of the planned protest earlier this year, Cockrum went to Police Chief Kurt Spivey to volunteer to help.
Spivey, a 29-year law enforcement veteran, has been serving as chief of police in Martinsville for about a year. He has great respect and appreciation for the services Cockrum provides.
“Chaplain Cockrum provides a faith-based approach to the citizens of Martinsville during a time of crisis,” Spivey states. “He brings extensive substance abuse and PTSD knowledge and treatment to the citizens of Martinsville as well as the officers of the department. At a time of crisis, Chaplain Cockrum makes himself available to those who have suffered a loss.”
“There’s not too many good things about getting old,” says the 73-year-old Cockrum with a laugh, “ but one of them is, you have a lot of experience, you have a lot of different jobs, and you get to know a lot of different people.”
It was determined that Spivey, the assistant police chief, and Cockrum would be the only visible police presence at the demonstration — though 100 law enforcement officers were positioned less than a block away, ready to respond, if the need arose.
As the two officers drove about the town square in a golf cart, watching both the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, Cockrum went out into the square, purposely unarmed, but in uniform.
“I iced down a case of water in the back of my pick-up,” he says. “I’d pick up a half-dozen bottles at a time and then go out among the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, handing out cold water. When things appeared to be getting confrontational between the two groups, I would strike up a conversation with whichever side seemed more rowdy.”
UNDERSTANDING BOTH SIDES
As the crowd included a wide variety of people, including a biker group, university students, and even a church group, Cockrum felt at ease. He “knew” these groups of people — had been a part of the protesters in his youth — even though he says very few on either side of the demonstration were actually from Martinsville.
“Things don’t rock my boat like they do some people,” Cockrum explains. “There was a lot of screaming, lot of yelling, lot of profanity, but no projectiles thrown. There never was a time that I felt endangered at all, unless you count people screaming, but if you’re going to get upset with people screaming, police chaplaincy is probably not a good place for you.”
The demonstration lasted from noon to about 6 p.m. Cockrum remained on site throughout the day, helping to keep the peace and calm agitators.
“Chaplain Cockrum interjected himself between opposing groups when tensions were high,” Spivey observes. “He acted as a buffer or a liason between law enforcement and those directly opposed to our function or purpose. Those who refused to communicate with officers, were comfortable talking to Chaplain Cockrum — his presence defused tensions and kept peace throughout the protest.“
“Anytime someone got in somebody else’s face,” Cockrum says, “I’d approach and say that they’re not helping the situation here and strike up a conversation with one of them.”
Although Cockrum says he never felt in danger, the opportunity for chaos and violence certainly existed. When a biker group began to get rowdy, Cockrum knew what to do and who to talk to in order to help reduce the “volume.” When he noticed one of the demonstrators carrying an AR-15, he engaged him in conversation, asking him to make sure there wasn’t a bullet in the chamber. He did the same when he noticed a counter-demonstrator carrying a handgun, asking that young man to please remove his finger from the trigger.
“My whole thing is to treat people with respect, and most of the time, you’ll get that back,” Cockrum states. “If not, I try to find a way to diffuse the situation, constantly keeping people in conversation, and then when things calm down, walk away from it.”
Cockrum says he believes most people in the Church today could use their life experiences to help others. Perhaps not everyone is experienced enough to handle a potential powder-keg demonstration, but everyone has those past not-so-proud times in their lives that can be used to help others today find hope.
“People are embarrassed about their pasts,” Cockrum recognizes, “but God can use those pasts for ministry to others.”
Recently, in recognition of his service to the Martinsville Police Department and his efforts during the demonstration, Cockrum was awarded the Citizen’s Merit Award by the Martinsville Police Department.
“He has filled a much-needed position in a completely selfless manner and presented himself in a professional manner at all times,” Spivey says about Cockrum. “He is a highly welcomed addition to our agency . . .we are lucky to have him here.”
In reflecting upon his role during the demonstration, Cockrum admits that although violence didn’t erupt, he’s still troubled by it.
“The hatred bothers me — I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to civility among people,” he says, quietly. “I don’t know if one side is worse than the other (during the demonstration) . . . people are afraid, they’re angry, they feel that their way of life has been challenged. I don’t have any answers, other than Jesus Christ is the answer for the world.”