kus zendo
Rev. Kusala Bhikshu is the second Buddhist police chaplain in the U.S.

The LA Times, Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Police Chaplain Program Is Keeping Many Faiths

Religion: Garden Grove fields a highly diverse group, including a Buddhist and Muslim.

By WILLIAM LOBDELL, Times Staff Writer

     After Garden Grove's newest police chaplain puts on his bulletproof vest, he stuffs two items into the pocket centered over his heart: an extra slice of body armor to protect against a kill shot, and a photo of Kwan Yin, as beloved by Buddhists as the Virgin Mary is by Catholics.

     "Using both the Kevlar and Kwan Yin, I thought that was the way to go," the Rev. Kusala Ratana Karuna said. "You can never have too much protection."

     Kusala, 51, a Buddhist monk, is one of two new recruits in the Garden Grove Police Department's cutting-edge chaplain program. The 10-member volunteer force also includes a Muslim, a Mormon, a rabbi, pastors and priests.

     Few if any police departments nationwide can match Garden Grove's diversity of faith. Kusala is only the second Buddhist police chaplain in the United States, according to the International Conference of Police Chaplains. The other is in Rockford, Ill., where the Police Department has some Buddhist officers.

     A major driver behind the yearlong revamp was Police Chief Joe Polisar's desire to form better relationships with immigrant communities, some of which often are distrustful of the police.

     Garden Grove's population of 160,000 is divided about evenly among Asians, Latinos and whites. The city is home to Buddhist temples, synagogues, one of the nation's largest mosques, and churches, including the Crystal Cathedral.

     On call 24 hours a day, the chaplains traditionally have given advice or provided a shoulder to cry on for police officers, their families, crime and accident victims, and troubled citizens such as runaways. In Garden Grove, they will be ambassadors in the diverse neighborhoods.

     "We can now bridge those gaps that we haven't been able to until now," said Lt. Scott Hamilton, who is in charge of the program. "We've just never before had direct lines of communication with those groups."

     Kusala, who came on board last month, spent his first police ride-along visiting four Buddhist temples in the city.

     Haitham "Danny" Bundakji, the department's first Muslim chaplain, is less than a month into the job. He already has responded to a 4 a.m. call to help a young Muslim whom police deemed suicidal.

     "He was in really bad shape," Bundakji recalled. "I told him that harming himself or anybody else is totally against Islam. I've talked with him a lot since then."

     Word Spreads Among Muslims

     The Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove draws 2,000 worshipers to Friday prayer services. News that they now have a police chaplain spread quickly in the tightknit Muslim community.

     "Some are very excited and very surprised. That term 'chaplain' is very new for them," said Bundakji, who added that in his new role, he received nine calls last week for assistance.

     Chaplain programs within police departments have been steadily growing for more than a decade, said Stu Nelson, assistant executive director of the International Conference of Police Chaplains. The chaplains' association has added 100 chaplains a year in the last 12 years, Nelson said, and now have 2,500 increasingly diverse members in nine countries.

     The faith leaders in Garden Grove are subjected to background checks and training sessions. The chaplains are instructed to use a nondenominational approach, keeping clear of evangelizing. Even the dress suggests uniformity: black jeans, bulletproof vest, black shirt, black jacket and baseball cap.

     Kusala and Bundakji were personally recruited by Polisar, who met them at community events. Both were selected for their ability to jump easily between the police officers' world and the immigrant community: Kusala, as an American-born monk and Bundakji as a well-respected spokesman for the Muslim community.

     Kusala, became a monk later in life. He never thought he would be affiliated with law enforcement, but admits he was a big fan of the TV show "Cops."

     When Polisar first proposed revamping the chaplain program, officers' reaction was underwhelming.

     "This did not come about without a great deal of discussion, concern and consternation," Polisar said. "To the officers' credit, once we got into the discussion, they were open to it. The chaplains themselves were the best sellers."

     The officers worried that a new religion was going to be pushed on them. They were unsure of what to expect from a Buddhist monk.

     "When you start talking about people's faith, things can be very, very volatile," Hamilton said. "Once the idea sunk in a little bit--that there was going to be a liaison to the [immigrant] communities--they were excited."

     The new breed of chaplain also helps educate the American-born police officers, who know little about Islam or Buddhism.

     Patrol Car as a Confessional

     "They ask me all sorts of questions," Kusala said. "Like everyone asks me: 'Do Buddhists go to heaven?'

     Kusala explained the difference between nirvana and heaven: "Buddhists go to heaven by what they think, what they say, and what they do--which is their karma. Eventually, they will end up in nirvana."

     Kusala said he hopes that he eventually will gain enough trust to teach the officers meditation.

     As the chaplains gain the officers' confidence, a ride-along can turn the inside of the police car into a confessional--or a psychologist's office.

     "We have a lot of young officers, and they see a lot of things," said Steve LaFond, a Mormon chaplain.

"They're supposed to be real macho, but no one's that tough. I don't care who you are, when you see a SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome] baby, it affects you.

     "They won't ever go to a psychologist, but they'll spill their heart and soul to a man or woman of the cloth."