The Rev. Robert Gray doesn’t have many typical days.
He woke at 5 a.m. Monday to check on an SIUC student in the hospital as well as a church member who had been admitted. Afterward, he went to Our Savior Lutheran Church to put together the Easter bulletin, which must be translated for the large number of Chinese students that attend his services. Finally, Gray returned home to check on the Angus bull calf born that morning on his 125-acre farm.
“But because I’m on call all the time night and day, I really never know what I’m doing next,” he said.
Gray has volunteered as the police chaplain for both the Carbondale Police Department and SIU Department of Public Safety since 1992. He is also the chaplain at the coroner’s office. His duties include hostage negotiating, grief counseling and giving death notifications.
Gray said the hardest part of his job is telling people they’ve lost a loved one.
“I don’t think there is any right way. There are no good words to use,” he said. “When a student dies, that’s the hardest.”
Gray must call the parents to say there’s been a serious accident, and their son or daughter is either in the hospital or dead.
“Typical thing is if the husband answers the phone, I will hear the wife screaming in the background, saying, ‘Is it John? Is it Sally?’” he said.
Gray said he remembers one incident where an SIUC student was run over by a train near Sidetracks. Gray met the parents at the hospital, he said, where the mother asked if her son’s teddy bear and blanket could be taken from home and put with the body.
Gray said he had to convince the parents not to view the body until it had been prepared by a funeral home, and sometimes families are not allowed to touch or embrace the body if foul play is a suspected cause of the death.
There hasn’t been any specific incident that Gray has had a hard time letting go of, though.
“I hope and pray I come off compassionate and caring,” he said. “I think I do, and (God’s) always given me the strength to not let it eat at me.”
When notifying a student of a family member’s death, Gray said, he brings a police officer with him because some chaplains have been shot for delivering the news.
Gray said he asks if he can come in, sits down and says there’s been an accident involving a family member. He gives the student the phone number of another family member or friend to call for details and stays to make sure the student has a friend to talk to.
Besides death notifications, Gray used to ride every Friday night with the Carbondale Police Department from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. He would calm down angry civilians and try to handle domestic disputes. When police officers saw how much Gray helped others, he said, they would often come to him with their problems, too.
While he did wear a bulletproof vest sometimes, Gray said he never dressed in police uniform like some chaplains do. He dressed in normal attire without carrying a radio because he didn’t want to irritate the situation.
“It just made sense to both the chief and I that I not be viewed as a police officer,” he said.
To relieve the stress of his chaplain duties, Gray spends his free time tending to his Angus cattle or expansive garden of fruits and vegetables. He butchers his own meat, and his wife Mary, a psychiatric nurse, cans and freezes the produce.
Andrew Podoll, a friend of Gray’s, often helps out at the farm. He said he moved to Carbondale from North Dakota in June 2007 and started to attend Gray’s church.
“We didn’t really get to know each other until probably a year later,” Podoll said of Gray. “We went to breakfast a couple of times. Bob was there for me for some personal things I was going through, just relationships and life in general, decision making. So we became good friends. He trusted me and I trusted him.”
Podoll said he became close with Gray when they went on what was supposed to be a fishing trip in Michigan, only to find out their reservation was scheduled for a different day. They had to drive back home, spending a total of 20 hours together on the ride. The two have made several trips to Michigan since then.
Podoll said he began to work on the farm about two years ago and has been visiting more and more often lately.
“I’m a city kid, but Bob says I’m not anymore,” he said.
Gray certainly wasn’t a city kid.
Growing up, he lived on a 260-acre farm with all kinds of animals. He said his family was poor, and they would often sell the carcasses of animals and eat the chickens’, ducks’ and turkeys’ heads and feet.
Gray said after he told his congregation about this, one member gave him 10 pounds of chicken feet for Christmas.
“And yes, we cooked them,” he said.
Gray raised $400 after finishing grade school to go to a boarding school and eventually became a pastor.
He said he thinks one reason he decided to become a pastor is because his father was an alcoholic and committed suicide when Gray was 6 years old.
“The fact that the church would not bury my father made me end up thinking that church ought to be different,” he said.
Gray said he wanted to help prevent people from going through that pain.
“My mother told me, ‘Robert, God gave you one mouth and two ears, and you should use them in that proportion,’” he said.
As pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church for more than 25 years, Gray has managed to bring in a different kind of audience: international students, mostly Chinese.
After an apartment complex of international students caught fire in 1992, leaving five dead and eight critically injured, the church raised $10,000 for the students and their families. It also supplied them with clothes, toothbrushes and toothpaste.
Shortly after, he said, international students started showing up at the church to ask for help with other day-to-day questions such as where to go for a driver’s test.
Sundays after church there’s a dinner for American and international college students, he said, and the international students get together about once a week at a church member’s home for a Bible study. The group also has events such as bonfires, hayrides and an upcoming hog roast April 21.
Yu Jin, a doctoral student from China in mathematics, said he gets together with the international students for Bible studies and has been to Gray’s house for dinner.
“When I need help, he will always give a hand,” Jin said. “I really appreciate that.”
Gray said one member told him he’s like a dad to the international students because they can always come to him.
“That’s the kind of image I want to project to them,” Gray said.
The best part about his congregation, Gray said, is how supportive everyone is. He said he feels spoiled.
“I’m almost 65 years old and people ask when I’m going to retire,” Gray said. “I’m having too much fun to retire.”