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FDNY's first female chaplain went from World Trade Center to pulpit (+video)

The Rev. Ann Kansfield was sworn in this week as the first woman and the first openly gay chaplain in the history of the New York Fire Department.

When the Rev. Ann Kansfield was sworn in as the first female chaplain in the history of the New York Fire Department this week, it was a particularly “poignant experience” for the Reformed minister and her family, an experience she says is as deeply felt as any in her life’s unlikely journey.

Standing with her wife, Jennifer Aull, and their 4-year-old daughter, Grace, Chaplain Kansfield was also sworn in as the first openly gay minister to serve New York’s “Bravest,” as the city’s firefighters have long been known.

But as the bagpipes sounded their first few notes at her swearing in ceremony, her father, Norman Kansfield, also a minister in the Reformed Church of America and a former president of one of its seminaries, shed a few tears as his daughter donned the famous white bell cap and gold-buttoned, double-breasted uniform, becoming a part of the nation’s largest and most historic fire department.

“I think it was particularly poignant for him, since his father, my grandfather, his identity was really wrapped up in the fire department,” says Kansfield, pastor of Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn since 2003, who also recalled that moment the only grandparent she ever knew.

“The fire department was really part of my family’s culture and who he was, and so it feels like I’m continuing a family legacy,” she says of her grandfather, a former fire chief in a Chicago suburb. It’s a legacy other family members have continued, too.

After being sworn in by Commissioner Daniel Nigro, who was appointed by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio last year to help diversify the department’s ranks, Kansfield performed her first official duty, cutting the ribbon for the department’s new $1.2 million EMS station in Canarsie.

She told those present that she was “excited to work in a department where everyone is able to be the people that God made them to be ... and a department that's really looking to be diverse and include all people,” Kansfield said at the ceremony Tuesday. She is now one of eight FDNY chaplains, which include three Protestant ministers, four Catholic priests, and one Jewish rabbi serving the department.

Her appointment comes, too, as the FDNY, a department with deep-seated traditions spanning more than a century, has been working to diversify its ranks the past two years. Long dominated by Irish and Italian Catholic men, there are currently only 44 women – or about .4 percent – of the department’s 10,200 firefighters. Nationwide, about 3.7 percent of firefighters are female, according the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And after years of legal wrangling, the city last year agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by a black firefighters group, paying $100 million in back wages and benefits to minorities who courts ruled were kept from being hired because of the institutional biases of a department that still remains 87 percent white.

But Kansfield wears her uniform now with a deep connection to the legacy of 9/11, which still remains deeply ingrained in the memories of the department’s firefighters, from its veterans to its first-year rookies.

In the summer of 2001, the department’s newest chaplain had been working for TD Waterhouse in the south tower of the World Trade Center. She left that job months before the attacks to become an independent financial adviser, but she was also mulling another job on the south tower’s 75th floor that September.

After the attacks, when Wall Street shut down for a few days, Kansfield began to rethink her career choices.

“Suddenly, when I had all this time on my hands, I really reevaluated,” she says. “If I had died that day, all that really would have been said about me was, well, she made some money. And that wasn’t what I wanted to be known for.”

She had already felt a calling to the ministry, however. She was the leader of the youth group at her church, but she thought her sexuality was too great a barrier to the ministry at the time. “But in the ensuing days, when the market was closed and there wasn’t anything to be done, I realized that all I wanted to do was hang around my church.”

Almost immediately, she decided to go to seminary. Inspired by the story of Father Mychal Judge, the FDNY chaplain and Catholic priest who was the first certified fatality during the 9/11 attacks – and though not openly gay, was widely known to be celibate gay man – Kansfield dreamed even then, she says, of serving the fire department as a minister.

“Father Mychal’s story was really a story of sacrifice, and one where he impacted so many people around the city with his ministry,” Kansfield says. “Most people know him for what happened on 9/11, but so many people in New York knew him for what he did before that. So he was such a tremendous role model in my life.”

She attended New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey, where her father was president, and by 2003, was a student pastor at Greenpoint Reformed, where she remains today.

In 2005, however, after she graduated and became a full-time pastor in Brooklyn, her father presided when she married Ms. Aull. But Dr. Kansfield’s actions, officiating a same-sex wedding, cost him his job. His contract was not extended at the seminary, and he was later defrocked. The Reformed Church has since reinstated him, though he remains retired.

The journey, and Tuesday’s tears, leave the FDNY’s newest chaplain eager to begin the next stage of her ministry.

“I’m really just so excited about getting to serve the department, that the commissioner has put his trust in me, and that my colleagues are putting their trust in me to do this,” Kansfield says. “It’s really a tremendous honor, and I’m joining a really wonderful team of chaplains.”

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