Armed with a badge, prayer

Published: January 1, 2007 | 5217th good news item since 2003

Oakland police sergeant says faith has been source of strength for him, others during increase in killings

Investigating a murder case in Oakland is a formidable mission, and Sgt. James Morris confronts each one with a badge and a prayer.

Morris is an Oakland homicide detective and an ordained minister. He’s been on the force for 24 years — in homicide for the past year and a half — and was ordained as a minister in 2002 at the Lighthouse Mission Church of God in Christ in West Oakland.

At first blush, the combination of cop and clergyman seems unlikely. Yet for Morris these are kindred careers, sustaining each other — and him — through Oakland’s recent shadow of death.

“Both preaching and being a homicide detective involve dealing with people who have a lot of issues. People in crisis,” he said last week, seated in one of the pale-blue witness-interview rooms in the Oakland police homicide offices, a place where the counseling and communication skills of a minister often come in handy with distraught family members or uncooperative witnesses.

“In both jobs, a lot of times you’re in the role of advocate or mediator,” he said. “As a homicide detective, it’s mediating between the family and the system. As a preacher, it’s between an individual and God. So there are similarities.

“And probably most of all,” Morris said, “both jobs involve the search for truth.”

Morris, 45, often called “Mo” by his fellow detectives, is a big man with a bald head, a strong handshake and a humble spirit who didn’t even tell his homicide partner, Sgt. Lou Cruz, he was being interviewed for this article. “I had no idea,” Cruz said. “That’s the kind of humility he has. The main influence of his faith on this job is just how he carries himself. He doesn’t go out there preaching on the job, but he lives his life by a certain set of principles. That enables him to survive a lot of things this job throws at you.”

Indeed, Morris says he prays every day for his city. He prays when he’s on stand-by, and has seen the effects — he and Cruz have worked fewer homicides this year than some of their fellow detectives. “Some say it’s luck,” Morris said, smiling. “But I know prayer works.”

He has tried to understand what he believes is God’s plan, even when at an autopsy, standing at the side of a 15-year-old boy. He prays for closure for families who have lost loved ones to murder.

“I’ll pray that answers come for these families,” he said. “And a couple times it has been just unbelievable. One case, I was really frustrated. It was going nowhere. I was praying about it, which is probably what I should have done to start with, and a witness came forward out of nowhere. The case was solved in a couple of weeks.”

Sometimes on the scene of a violent death, the atmosphere swirling with chaos and anger, tears and pain, Morris has prayed aloud with victims’ families, if the moment seemed right.

“When a life is that fractured and that broken, sometimes that’s all you can do for them,” he said. “I’ll say, ‘Let’s just be quiet a moment and pray together,’ and usually there’s a peace that comes upon that situation.”

He doesn’t force it, however. Doesn’t proselytize. Doesn’t presume to be his brother’s keeper, merely striving to treat others as he would want to be treated himself.

Such conduct was recently helpful to Farris Patrick Sr.

Patrick’s 20-year-old son, Farris Patrick Jr., was shot and killed outside a pizza parlor on High Street on Sept. 12. Two men have since been charged in the murder. At the crime scene, Morris did not pray with the elder Patrick per se, but offered condolences and guidance.

“(Morris) had some very good words for me,” Patrick said. “I was in real bad shape, and I first didn’t want to hear nothing from nobody. I was displaced from a lot of positive thoughts. Feeling negative. I felt that nothing was going to come out of (the police investigation), and I had thoughts of handling it myself.

“So when I talked to (Morris), he gave me a comfort and more of a sense of reality,” Patrick said. “His condolences really helped change my frame of mind about what I should do. And when he called the other day and I heard they’d charged these two, I felt a relief.”

In his dual roles, Morris has been asked to speak publicly on various solemn occasions. Just this month, the support group Families & Friends of Murder Victims asked him to share some thoughts at its public memorial service at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland.

And in August, the head coach of the Oakland High School Wildcats football team asked Morris to join with various school counselors, an Oakland Police Department chaplain, coaches and other ministers in offering support to the team after the death of player Andrew Porter, 16, who was shot and killed in East Oakland as he walked to a party with a group of friends.

“I deal with death every day,” Morris told the downcast players that day. “This was a cowardly act. A lot of times, you won’t want to talk about the incident. But you need to communicate. Talk to your friends, your parents.”

Morris was born and raised in Oakland, and graduated from Oakland High School. After school, he joined the Army, serving in the 82nd Airborne Division. He then joined the Oakland Police Department, first on patrol, then in robbery and now in homicide. He even met his wife here, a former Oakland police officer who is now a teacher in Oakland schools. They have a grown son and daughter.

Morris was always dedicated to police work, he said, but went through a low period in his life about 10 years ago. That’s when he had a personal epiphany and began attending church.

“Growing up, I never really went to church,” he said. “Then in 1998, I was at home by myself, lying on the bed. It was a really dark time for me. And the spirit of God came into my life. A voice said to read the Bible. I opened up the Bible — I don’t know what I read, but whatever it was, I knew at that moment that there was a God and he loved me.”

Now at Lighthouse, a Pentecostal church, he teaches Sunday school and preaches a sermon on the fourth Sunday of the month along with other church members.

Morris says he never sought an ordination, or the job in homicide. These things found him. His pastor at Lighthouse encouraged him toward ordination. And when he was in the robbery division working West Oakland, he was approached by Lt. Jim Emery, then-head of homicide who has since retired.

“I was his field training officer when he first came to the department, so I’ve known him his whole career,” Emery said. “He has incredible communication skills, and a sense of compassion — which all our guys do — but certainly his background in the ministry helps with that. With the families of victims, a lot of times people seem to really like to have a spiritual connection brought out. Sometimes it helps them through what is the worst time in their lives.”

Not only has his faith influenced his police work, but vice versa. Morris has brought his experiences in homicide to the pulpit.

“I let people know in my sermons that life is so precious,” he said. “I’ve had friends murdered, and I won’t ever see them again. I try to encourage people to forgive, and to make peace with God. Now. Don’t wait.”

Published in Cops, Faith, Prayer
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