OGDEN — After a career in uniform, John Valdez is returning to the Ogden Police Department to serve not the community but the officers. Since November, the St. James the Just parishioner, who also is a commissioned lay ecclesial minister, has been the chaplain for the Ogden Police Department; he serves in the prison ministry at the Utah State Prison as well.
In his role as chaplain, he relies on his extensive experience in law enforcement to help him minister to the officers.
Valdez graduated in 1973 from Weber State University with a police science degree and hired on with the Ogden Police Department, but after a few years, he began to feel disillusioned and burned out.
“When I was in law enforcement and in the critical incidents that we had, there was nothing there for you to sit down and talk to somebody about what you’ve experienced,” he said. “That trauma and shock – we just had to suck it up and move on.”
Although he resigned from the Ogden PD after four years, Valdez ended up serving more than 26 years in the law enforcement field before retiring in 2021. After his stint with the police department, he entered the military and spent four years as a military policeman.
While serving in Panama City in 1982, he had a life-changing experience. During a visit with the Army chaplain, who asked him what his career plans were, Valdez told him, “Father, I decided I’m going to take a different approach. I’m going to wait for God to send me a letter – ‘Dear John, come home,’ or something. He looked at me; he says, ‘You can’t do that; what’s the matter with you?’”
The next day Valdez was at his duty station when the phone rang.
“I answered and it was the chief of police from Ogden, Utah calling me,” he said. “Now, I’m 3,000 miles away in Panama,” and this happened before an internet search could easily locate someone. “I don’t know how he found me, but he says, ‘John, I’m sitting here at my desk, and I’m looking at the calendar, and it’s time for you to come home.’”
Valdez returned to Utah and got his old job back. For the next 15 years he served as a patrolman. He also served 21 years in the Army Reserve.
Returning to the police department, he found a very different experience than the first time.
“I realized I approached the career field as a vocation and as a ministry,” he said. “Police officers are supposed to serve the public, help the public have whatever they need, even if it means taking them to jail. I … was coming back to serve the citizens of Ogden, and that helped carry me through the rough times that followed after that.”
In the 1990s, Valdez was involved in three critical incidents in four years, which took a toll on him. He left the patrol position in 1997. For the next 10 years he worked at various jobs. Then in 2007, he got a call from the Ogden city administrator asking him to come back and work for the city in its justice court. He served first as the traffic hearing officer and then as court liaison for another 14 years.
At the age of 71, Valdez retired, but shortly afterward he was contacted by Ogden Police Chief Eric Young, who asked him to join the department’s peer effort. Valdez turned down the request, but two years later changed his mind.
“This last fall, I woke up one morning and had an epiphany: ‘Call the chief and tell him you’re ready.’ So I did,” he said.
When Young was a rookie officer, Valdez trained him. These many years later, when the chief was looking for a chaplain, Valdez was an easy choice, Young said. “I just knew his nature, his demeanor, his care, concern and his love for this field. Pairing that with his venturing into the ecclesiastical realm of things, he just seemed like the perfect fit with the type of temperament and character he has.”
As chaplain, Valdez is one member of the 20-person team that serves on an on-call basis. When officers endure a difficult experience, particularly one that involves loss of life, the team is available to help them process the trauma.
Valdez also works with retired officers and their families, many of whom are still dealing with trauma from their professional careers or in their personal lives. He recently helped a retired officer and his family deal with the unexpected death of their son and brother, he said.
“Inevitably, you can still see and hear the pain of these guys like myself, a lot of them retired 20 years ago and still, those events never go away,” he said. “You just learned to compartmentalize. If you can’t deal with it, then that’s when a person finds themself in a stressful, traumatic situation that they cannot handle and they resort to negative outcome sometimes.”
Valdez, who was commissioned as a lay ecclesial minister for the diocese in August 2019 after completing the four-year training, originally got involved in ministry at his parish to participate in the Church, “not just sit in the pews,” he said. For several years he helped out in various roles in the parish. Last year he felt called to do something else. Subsequent calls from Deacon Greg Werking inviting him to participate in the prison ministry, and Young’s call asking him to be chaplain showed the way. His work in his parish as a lay ecclesial minister has helped him be ready for these new positions, he said.
“I utilize my faith and beliefs to help others and have learned that we can use negative things as an opportunity to help us grow in our faith, and for the better good, somewhere along the line somehow,” he said. “Whatever occurs, there is a plan there, so a lot of it is just listening to their pains and their hurt and helping them to see that it isn’t the end.”
“Because we believe in the resurrected Lord, very first and foremost must be our belief in Jesus Christ, that he died and was resurrected for us to create that path, open up those doors for us to return back home,” he added. “What I call the ministry I’m involved in now is the greatest retirement plan available.”