Rich Robinson is a jazz drummer. Rich Robinson is a family man. Rich Robinson is a man of God.
He is also the recently appointed senior chaplain at Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, the Lowcountry team whose members are counted among the Lowcountry's emergency responders.
Robinson, 46, is no stranger to crisis. He served as a correctional officer with the Florida Department of Corrections, then became a Charleston police officer before turning to the church. He pastored at St. Stephen United Methodist Church in St. Stephen and Epworth United Methodist Church on James Island before becoming a full-time crisis chaplain.
His dedication to public service is shared by his wife.
"My family is my greatest support," he said. "We are a mission-minded family. My wife JoDee just started a school for children with high-functioning autism in Summerville."
The Post and Courier checked in with Robinson now that Coast Crisis Chaplaincy is at the start of a new phase.
Q: For some years you served as a Methodist minister in traditional churches. For the last several years, you have been a chaplain with Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy. How would you describe the differences and similarities between church pastoring and crisis chaplaining?
A: Whether in the church or the community, the similarity is in my joy to serve. The difference is in the delivery. In public safety chaplaincy, we do the pastoral in a very practical way, and then do the practical in a very pastoral way. We meet people where they are in their deepest crisis and become what they need. Sometimes there is no prayer said, just a presence seen.
In the church, I loved serving communion. As a chaplain out on a traumatic scene, in a similar manner, I now offer a tissue, a bottle of water or an embrace, with the same spirit. When a chaplain becomes a comfort in the midst of crisis, people counterintuitively sense a hope for healing.
Q: In light of a recent leadership change at Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, the core purpose surely remains the same — to provide pastoral care to those affected by crimes, disasters and emergencies — but has anything else changed? What is your approach as senior chaplain?
A: What has changed is that our world can no longer be without chaplains. Look at the news: the shootings, disasters, terrorism, suicide and suffering demand chaplaincy.
Our core mission of community crisis care has recently grown exponentially. We now have 35 chaplains and 20 survivor follow-up team members. To accommodate the growth, we have developed expanded teams of crisis chaplains, community chaplains, and care chaplains.
Community resiliency is collaborative. We cannot do it alone, so we are nurturing our relationships and common goals, such as our participation in the Illumination Project and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and the SC Public Safety Chaplains Association.
Q: No need to name names, of course, but please describe the most traumatic experience you’ve had as a chaplain, as well as the most satisfying/rewarding.
A: Years ago, I recall a tourist on vacation, whose spouse committed suicide with no warning. I remember her questions. I had no words, but answered them silently by holding her bloody hands for five hours. When we arrive on scene of a loss, there are often no answers that will suffice. Often, the deepest question not asked by survivors is, “Am I now alone?” This is a question that is most often answered silently with our presence: We are never alone. God is with us.
One connection that spoke deeply to me was when attending a healing service at Mother Emanuel Church in the weeks after we responded to the shooting. I saw the mural of the crucifixion scene and noticed a disciple with a cloth, collecting the blood and tears of Christ in his suffering. The sacred worth of his blood, sweat and tears were noticed and someone caught them before they wasted into the ground.
Ultimately this is our cry in crisis: Will my pain be unnoticed, will my sacred worth be wasted? Our chaplains are there to see and hold the suffering of others and to acknowledge their sacred worth.
Q: I suppose it takes a certain kind of character to do the kind of work you do. What is it that motivates you to serve the community in this way?
A: Having been a Charleston police officer before a minister, I am wired to run into a crisis, not from it. There is something very present in these situations.
While the constant rhythm of traumatic incidents can be emotionally and spiritually demanding, chaplaincy is a very tangible ministry. Every time we step into a crisis, we step into a dark, yet sacred space. God is already there, waiting on us to be God’s heart and hands to the suffering. In that contrast of bringing light into another’s darkest moment, chaplains see God’s presence pronounced. Seeing individuals and our community find their resiliency renews my passion to serve.
Q: You are an accomplished drummer who has played a lot of jazz. It what ways have your musical experiences influenced or intersected with your pastoral work?
A: I preach like a tenor saxophonist, with inspired improvisation around the form or outline. Great jazz musicians are all simultaneously listening to and responding to the same inspiration, the same Love Supreme. Some folks worship by singing, I worship through drums. I also chaplain like a drummer.
Jazz comes from the call and response of African-American slave spirituals. In church, preachers call and the congregation responds. In jazz, the soloist calls and the band responds. A great jazz drummer responds to the call of the soloist with grace notes and accents, creating a sacred space, encouraging and responding intimately to the soloist.
In the church, the preacher calls; in the street, the chaplain responds. As a chaplain, like a seasoned jazz drummer, I listen intimately to the cries of the people and respond, hearing their survivor stories and acknowledging their sacred worth. It is not a preaching, but a listening, a drawing out of what is deep within, yearning to be expressed.