Shelby Township Fire Department hires new chaplain

Volunteer position provides ministry, counseling

By: Sarah Wojcik | Shelby - Utica News | Published October 16, 2013

 Ray Ahonen, the new chaplain for the Shelby Township Fire Department, stands in front of Shelby Fire Station No. 1 Oct. 11.

Ray Ahonen, the new chaplain for the Shelby Township Fire Department, stands in front of Shelby Fire Station No. 1 Oct. 11.

Photo by Sean Worth

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Ray Ahonen will join the ranks of the Shelby Township Fire Department as its new chaplain — a volunteer mentor, spiritual leader and resource for first responders.

Ahonen served 22 years with the West Bloomfield Fire Department and seven and a half years as the Macomb Township Fire Department chief before retiring in 2005. For the last eight years, he has been active with Belfor, a disaster recovery and property restoration company. He recently obtained his chaplain certification.

“It’s been a long time coming and something that we’ve looked forward to for a very long time,” said Shelby Township Fire Chief Jim Swinkowski. “We look for someone who knows our services, knows what we have to go through day in and day out. As we are all human, we run across those emergencies that become hard for us to deal with.”

Swinkowski said four department members have died — not all on active duty — in the last year, including former chief Gene Shepherd. That was when Swinkowski decided it was time to seek a designated individual to level with fire personnel.

He said it is especially difficult for firefighters with young children to work 24-hour shifts and be away from home for a third of the year, so Ahonen will be a resource when they need him.

“I was quietly waiting for the right person to come along, and when (Ahonen) graduated from the chaplain program, (choosing him) was a no-brainer,” Swinkowski said.

Swinkowski said the position is informal and unpaid, and that his guys will know that they can contact Ahonen whenever the need arises for a personal or professional mentor, not only during the bad times but also to celebrate the good.

Part of Ahonen’s duties will be to give invocations at Fire Department meetings, department events, promotional ceremonies, retirement ceremonies and funerals.

Ahonen knows a number of the Shelby Township Fire Department personnel already and taught Swinkowski at the fire academy in 1991.

“I first walked into the fire service on Jan. 3, 1977. All I ever wanted to do, truly, was be a fireman,” Ahonen said. “I think it’s the greatest job in the world.”

Besides serving as chaplain for the Shelby Township Fire Department, Ahonen will fill the same role in the Sterling Heights and Madison Heights fire departments.

“Being a fire department chaplain takes a ton of responsibility,” Ahonen said. “I do not take this position lightly. It is an honor to have this position and wear the uniform.”

He said in the chaplaincy, there are no lone rangers. He said he plans to bring a spirit of presence, a spirit of resource, a spirit of support and a spirit of caring to the Fire Department.

Ahonen said he also plans to pursue higher levels of chaplaincy and that one of his goals is to become ordained.

“I believe that life is made richer by the people that cross our paths and allow us to share life with them in the good times and the bad,” Ahonen said. “I hope to bring hope when it’s really needed out in those scenes, and serve, and that comes from my heart.”