FDNY swears in first lesbian chaplain as part of larger diversity effort

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GREENPOINT (PIX11) -- Anybody who lives in, or even visits, New York knows that the city is made up of women and men of all ethnicities and colors, as well as a variety of backgrounds.

A glaring exception to that, however, has been the Fire Department of New York. While it serves all 8.4 million New Yorkers, its ranks, by its own assessment, is overwhelmingly white and male.

On Tuesday, however, a new appointment in the FDNY, of an openly lesbian chaplain, served as a symbol of change in the department.

Rev. Ann Kansfield, 39, has had firefighters in her family, including her grandfather, who was an Illinois fire chief. With her swearing in on Tuesday afternoon, she said that she was expanding her family to include more than 10,000 brothers and, she hoped, more sisters eventually. She also said that her appointment to the chaplaincy was a milestone in a journey that began at the FDNY's most spiritually challenging time.

"After college," said Rev. Kansfield in an interview with PIX11 News, "I went and worked on Wall Street. For three years, I was an investment advisor. It was as a result of 9/11 that I realized that I was called to something different."

She enrolled in seminary, and not long after graduation, was selected as a minister at the Greenpoint Reformed Church, in Brooklyn. She quickly became the church's pastor, and has held the position for 11 years.

Her spouse, who is also a minister at the church, held the Bible at Thursday's swearing in. It was a scene that may not have been imaginable even a few years earlier.

The previous mayoral administration disputed a lawsuit alleging discrimination in recruitment at the FDNY; the current administration has settled in the case.

"It shows the department is committed to including all of the people of the city," said Rev. Kansfield, "to make this as diverse a department as we possibly can be."

Two years ago, the FDNY graduated its most diverse class of recruits -- more than 60 percent of the class was Latino, black, Asian or from some other non-white ethnic group. Still, since then, the FDNY has agreed to oversight by a federal court to change numbers within its ranks, which are out of balance with New York City's ethnic, racial and gender makeup.

Of its more than 10,000 firefighters, 14 percent are non-white, and 44 firefighters, or 0.004 percent, are women. Nationwide, women make up about 4 percent of all firefighters.

The FDNY numbers, Kansfield says, don't deter her at all from her job of serving as moral support to firefighters at firehouses and fire scenes, visiting them at hospitals, and officiating when asked, including, in worst case scenarios, at funerals.

"My ministry thus far has been to a large group of people who do not.. look like me," said Rev. Kansfield.

Her small Reformed church serves a community where the Catholic church is largest. Greenpoint has a very large Polish Roman Catholic population. It's demographics are changing, but she says she still interacts with plenty of residents who are different from her. In fact, her congregation has a food distribution program that serves up to a 1000 people regularly.

A key tool, she said, to relating to people different than her is her sense of humor.
"I have a very humorous act," she wisecracked, "for free, every Sunday, 11 A.M."

While Kansfield may not be the first gay fire department chaplain, she is the first to be open about her sexual orientation, and is the first woman. The best known FDNY chaplain was Father Mychal Judge, who was killed on 9/11.

Kansfield does not claim that she'll rise to Judge's stature, but she pointed out that both she and he were strongly affected by the World Trade Center attacks, and that they have answered not only to the fire commissioner and mayor.

"I answer to a higher authority," Kansfield told PIX11 News, "but I'd say it's a good life and that I'm thankful for, for ways that God has blessed me."