Frontlines / Christians at Work : The Firefighter

In an exciting addition to the Frontlines series, Matt Chapman spoke to Gavin Matthews about how he shares his Christiian faith at work in the Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue services and the role of the Christian Network Group there.

Solas: Tell us a little about your job? What are your roles and responsibilities?

MC: I’m the Group Manager in charge of Training and Development for Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Services, and as part of that role I sit on the Diversity and Inclusion Group. I run four departments, The Training Centre, Driving Centre, Incident Command and Training Support.

Solas: What’s the best part of your job?

MC: Being able to support a great team of people who save other people’s lives is a really rewarding thing. Hearing stories of how lives have been saved and knowing that I have I been part of that process, and helped to make that happen is wonderful. Also, I never expected that my faith would ever be part of my job – but I love running the Christian Network group here too!

Solas: What are some of the challenges that you face at work – and how does your faith in Christ help you to navigate those?

MC: In Fire and Rescue work, the number one question we face is “Why do bad things happen to good people”, and my faith helps me to give some kind of answer to that question.

Solas: Do people you work with know that you are a Christian? How do they react to that?

MC:  For much of my career I kept a fairly low-profile as a Christian. That was until I became a watch-manager and was sent to work in Yorkshire, which was hard enough being Southern! When I introduced myself to my new team I was sent to manage, I said to them “There are three things you need to know about me, I’m 28 years old, I’m from Cambridge and I’m a Christian!” That led to some really great – and really challenging conversations.

Solas: Have you ever had opportunities to share your faith with people you know through work? What things have helped you to have good conversations about faith? Did you deliberately set about to have these conversations, or did they occur naturally?

MC: Yes – and it all started for me when I was working on the Inclusion Group and listening to what the LGBTQ+ group were doing as well as the BAME group and the Dawn Group and thought ‘why aren’t Christians doing anything?’ Like many Christians I’d always associated the word “mission” with going overseas, and then I met a remarkable lady called Cora Greenwood in Warwickshire. There had been some discussions at the Inclusion Group about setting up a ‘multi-faith group’ at work, and I met Cora an hour before the Inclusion Group were going to discuss this. Cora was involved with a Christian workplace group which met and prayed and had seen God move. So I realised that my problem was that I was just not being brave enough. Cora prayed for me and I went to the Inclusion Group and said to them, “I don’t want to run a multi-faith group, because I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I will support other faiths setting up a group, but I want to run a Christian group! To support other Christians, to let other people know what Christianity is about and to serve the organisation. The only thing I can give, is that we can pray for the organisation. So if anyone wants anything to be prayed for, we will pray about it – and other than that, I don’t really know what I’m doing!”

Then, in the meeting, the deputy chief said, “Matt – were you serious about offering to pray for people?” I said I was, and he replied, “There are two people I want you to pray for right now!” To which I replied, “What? NOW?” So I did! So in terms of getting that kind of stamp of approval, that was a really good start. The only condition they had was they said they wanted me to go to the Rainbow Lounge – which is the LBBTQ+ group, and speak to them about how they set up their group.

I did that, and it was a ‘challenging atmosphere’. Someone said, “Matt, can I ask an honest question… how are you going to practice all this love stuff if you think that people like me are an abomination?” I told them, that I’m not here to condemn anybody and I don’t think Jesus was either, and that a lot of what Christians are for is forgotten about and people only know what we’re against. The Christian Network Group only want to focus on five things. One: we believe God made the world. Two: we believe people have sinned, and if you want me to say that you are a sinner – then yes, I think that’s true. But that’s not about your sexuality that’s because the first command is ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength’. I haven’t kept that command, and correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think you have either! (and we both agreed that on that definition we are both sinners). Three: the solution to that problem is Jesus, who came to die for us. The Fourth thing is that anyone can come to Jesus, but when you do he may ask you to live in a different way; and that’s the challenging point – which is between you and Jesus. I’m not here to tell you what Jesus is going to tell you to do with your life. I can show you the Bible, and my thoughts on it – but until you come to Jesus you aren’t going to know what he wants you to do with your life. Then the last thing is that we believe that there is heaven and hell. Now very little of all of that has to do with your sexuality, and if that has kept you away from Jesus then I believe that God loves you and that He has something for your life and it’s a choice whether you follow him or not. My role isn’t to condemn anybody, my role is to point to Jesus and introduce people to him.

The result was that the Rainbow Lounge were supportive of us setting up the Christian Network group! So we set up the group with the aims of supporting Christians in the workplace, allowing anyone to find out about Jesus, and to make a safe and inclusive place to discuss, debate and disagree in matters of spiritual wellbeing.

We do a thing called “Doughnuts and Disagreement” in which we take a big box of expensive Krispy Kreme doughnuts, good quality coffee and say to folks, “this is what I believe about Jesus – what do you disagree with?” We’ve found that people are really up for conversations about spiritual wellbeing. So – when physical and mental wellbeing are exhausted there is a conversation to be had about spiritual wellbeing. The last “Doughnuts and Disagreement” event we did was with a crew who had just come in from an incident in which someone they pulled from a fire did not survive. People want to talk, and we give them that opportunity – and we have endless opportunities to share our faith in Jesus. Physically and mentally strong people still crumble; but where they land depends on what they truly believe in. Being able to talk about beliefs in that context, while loving and supporting people is fantastic.

Solas: How do people react when you talk about your faith in Jesus? Interested? Angry? Apathetic? Do they ever raise objections….?

MC: Well, I told my senior management team, that if we Christians are wrong about our core beliefs, then OK – we’re a little bit deluded; but you’ve got a group of people you are supporting who will naturally adhere to, and naturally advocate for your core values as an organisation. But if we are right, then we are going to bring the God of the universe with us and He is going to bless your organisation! I told them it was a win-win situation for them!

Our strategy as Christians has been to ask nothing from, but to consistently give to the organisation. For instance, we’ve distributed cake-parcels and biscuits and chocolates – really good quality stuff too! We want to show God’s love to people which has got to come with a bit of sacrifice from us as well. So a department get a really nice present from the Christian Network Group with a note that says, “We love you, we’re really grateful for all your work over the last year, you might not ever agree with us that there is a God who loves you – but there are people here in this organisation who think that you are great!” Numbers in the group increased, non-Christians started coming and it grew into the wider County Council offices too – to my complete surprise.

So now we meet twice a month. On one meeting we have a big question, a big debate issue which we will advertise everywhere in the organisation. Our other meeting is just a catch up and good fellowship. We actively get out into the work force as Christians, and actively give people the opportunity to disagree with us. We did the ‘National Day of Prayer for the Emergency Services” – and invited people across the organisation to send in their prayer requests, for work, home… anything. I was hesitant before sending out the invite to 130 people, but within minutes we had about 30 responses. They ranged from firefighters having bad dreams after attending traumatic incidents, prayer requests for unwell parents, to ‘please help me win the lottery’!! I am so blessed that the Fire and Rescue Service don’t just talk about inclusivity – they do actually include us. The chief offered me a slot on his monthly ‘broadcast’ to the whole service. So I went on there and had the opportunity to share the gospel with everyone! I began by telling them that they were not here by accident, but that they had been made by a God who cares!

Responses have varied – we’ve certainly had some “strong discussions”! In one group I went to speak to last week, before I had even finished my introduction I was interrupted by a passionate diatribe about the evils of religion. And there are people who are really hurting – and it was important that I listened to that person because their experiences were very damaging. But personally I’ve had not had too much push-back. If you guard your reputation well, and act with integrity, that really helps. It’s so important not to act in such a way as to give Jesus a bad reputation.

Solas: Why do you want to talk to colleagues and friends about Jesus?

MC: I run the children’s wok at my church, and on Sunday I told them about being in a sinking ship and finding the life-raft is like finding Jesus. But I don’t want to get to heaven and hear Jesus say to me, “what about all the empty seats in the life-raft? Why didn’t you warn anyone, why didn’t you bring anyone?” Also, if you think that being a Christian is the best way to live your life, and I genuinely care about the people I work with, why would I not, at the very least, give them an opportunity to say ‘No’? Also, people are very public today about what makes them, “them”. And this is at the very core of what makes me, “me”! It’s not that I have to go out of my way to share it… it just is me! I would actively have to go out of my way to hide it! I really believe this stuff, that’s why in the morning I pray and read the Bible and I believe that Jesus lives in me. I don’t have to create anything… it’s there!

Solas: What advice would you give a young Christian entering your field of work who wants to be faithful to Christ there?

MC: What a great question! And the first thing I’d say is “you’ve chosen a great career” – what could be better than literally “snatching people from the fire” There is no nobler career that you can choose than to want to give your life to save someone else’s. So not only is it possible to be a Christian firefighter, actually it fits really well with the idea of giving up your life for something better. “Firefighters for Christ” is an international organisation of thousands and thousands of Christians facing the same difficult questions such as “why did that happen?” So connect with them!

I remember a day which was the best and worst day of my life. At a housefire I climbed in through a window in breathing apparatus and there was an unconscious child in bed, who I picked up ran downstairs, kicked open the front door and handed to the paramedics. I ran back in and got his brother and his dog out too! It was amazing! Then six hours later at another housefire, a ceiling collapsed on me, and the two people I pulled from the place both passed away. Six hours apart – sitting in the back of the fire engine asking ‘why?’ And what this job allows you to decide whether to believe in God whether good things happen or not.

I realised that before I was a Firefighter I believed in Jesus because of what he did for me. But now I believe in Jesus because he is God – whether He does what I want or not. My wife had brain surgery three weeks ago, our eldest son has auto-immune disease, and they are not healed and you ask “why?” But actually knowing the answer to “why?” doesn’t help. When I call out to God, the answer to the question I need to know is, “Are you still there?” Being in the Fire Service you will face that regularly, and you come to realise that, Yes  – He is still there. You have bad days and good days – and on both you pray and He’s there.

So – if you are joining the Fire Service it is a great career choice which will really challenge you. But it also gives you the chance to go very, very deep in your faith.

Solas: Thanks Matt – that was so encouraging!