By Sharon Mager, BCM/D Correspondent
SEAFORD, Del.—Robert Douglas, Jr., a member of Laurel Church, Seaford, wants to lift the church’s unspoken taboo off the subject of suicide. Douglas is the former pastor of Jenkins Memorial Church, a non-denominational church in Riviera Beach and the founder and executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation, Inc. Douglas has been interviewed on CNN, quoted in USA Today and has trained over 50,000 people throughout the country on how to identify and help potential suicide victims and how to care for their families. He has personally counseled close to 8,000 people who wanted to take their own lives.
Douglas recounted the everyday news nationally and locally—from the rich and famous, such as Marie Osmond’s son leaping to his death, to a sixteen-year-old Severna Park girl who can’t handle the problems in her life and hangs herself in her room while her family is downstairs. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2006 there were 33,000 reported suicides, the equivalent of one every 16 minutes. And that’s only what’s reported. Douglas said there are many people who choose to cross the double lines on the highway. Many of those people were sitting in our churches.
“I began to look to see what churches were doing in this area and I didn’t find a lot,” Douglas said. He believes it’s time for the church to address this sensitive subject, bringing it out in the open, and teaching leaders how to recognize the tell-tale signs.
“It’s an overwhelming plus for church leadership. It gives them the tools to deal with varying emotional climates. It’s a way of touching and changing lives,” he said. It’s saving lives, Douglas stressed, and if the troubled person is not a believer, it’s giving them another opportunity to know Christ.
He is passionate about this cause and calling. He recently stepped down from a 24-year pastorate to commit more of his time to the foundation and its work.
As a foster child adopted and raised in a Christian home by a Southern Baptist family, Douglas heard the Gospel but didn’t truly respond until he was a young marine during the conflict in Vietnam.
“I first met Christ and knew him personally in 1964 when I was at Paris Island,” Douglas recalled. “At that time they read the casualty rates before you hit the rack. I guess they did it to bring a degree of reality to us,” he explained. “Over 58,000 soldiers were killed in Vietnam. I was 19 years old. I didn’t think I’d see my 21st birthday. Many of our guys only lived ten minutes after they left the Hueys. I would lay awake in my rack and hear muffled crying around me. Those young men were scared.
“One day a drill sergeant caught me reading a New Testament that a navy chaplain had given us when we went to services on Sunday,” Douglas recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t want you reading that. You need to be reading procedures and policies.’” The sergeant told Douglas he would make an example of him for being disobedient.
The next day, that sergeant pulled Douglas out of rank and started roughing him up.
“I fell down on the deck. I felt him going into the back pocket of my trousers and the next thing I knew pieces of my Bible were all over me. He had ripped it up. When I recognized what it was. I got to my knees and started stuffing those pieces into my pocket. He grabbed me and he pushed me into the rack and had me by my t-shirt. He said, ‘What will it take for you to understand I am your god?’ “I told him, ‘You’ll never be my God, do you understand me?’
“It was very emotional. ‘You’re useless’, he said, and he threw me to the side.”
Douglas not only amazed his sergeant and the men around him, by taking that stand, but he surprised himself. That was a defining moment.
Later, when the men got their orders, almost everyone went to Vietnam, but Douglas went to Washington and served on a presidential detail around the White House where he met his wife, Carolyn, the daughter of George Flynn, pastor of Jenkins Memorial Church, an interdenominational church in Riviera Beach. Carolyn was with her parents visiting museums. Douglas began talking with her and was smitten.
After serving in the Marines, Douglas took his bride back to his home in Temple Terrace, Fla., where he joined the police department and attended college to receive his Bachelor’s degree in police administration. When the couple later moved to Baltimore, Douglas joined the Baltimore City Police Department.
Carolyn’s father saw God working in his son-in-law and suggested to him that God was perhaps calling the young man to the ministry. Douglas struggled with the call, but after much prayer, began attending St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.
“I was working full-time and would sneak time in to crack open a book under a street light,” he said.
When Flynn retired in 1985, Douglas stepped in and ministered bi-vocationally at Jenkins. The church had about 50 members at the time. Douglas began to move out into the community, meeting and greeting neighbors.
“As a police officer, I was not shy,” he said with a laugh. “I really love people.” The church doubled, tripled and continued to expand and Douglas began ministering full time.
During those years, God was also preparing Douglas for another calling. Shortly after Douglas began ministering at Jenkins, a good friend, and fellow police officer, committed suicide and Douglas conducted the funeral. It was traumatizing.
“That set me back emotionally. I had never dealt with or heard about officers committing suicide. And it was a taboo subject to talk about.”
Carolyn advised her husband to address the issue. Douglas began working to develop a suicide awareness and support for survivors’ program model for police officers. He gave his first presentation in Harrisburg, Pa., and it was surprisingly well received. Douglas, with Carolyn’s help and support, went on to found the National Police Suicide Foundation, and write several books about the subject.
He travels nationally training others to be proactive in stopping suicide and helping families who deal with the issue.
“The last two years we’ve realized the foundation is growing and we’re seeing tremendous opportunity to be a witness for Christ on a greater scale,” he said.
He and Carolyn are now pouring themselves into the National Police Suicide Foundation and they’re looking forward to seeing how God will expand it in the area of church ministry.
There are so many people in our churches that are in a crisis, can’t see the solution or a way out and may be considering “checking out.” They may need counseling, but many never make it. Douglas said the church needs to be there, to share Christ, and to be the body it is called to be. And that includes tackling the tough subjects.
For more information or to schedule a speaking engagement, email Robert Douglas at email@example.com or call 1-866-276-4615.