Garden Grove Police chaplain: ‘I never have bad dreams….That’s how I know this is a calling’


A 10-year-old girl is missing.

“Are you OK?” James Scheller asks her grandmother, who called cops just before 3 p.m. on a recent weekday.

Amber was supposed to be picked up after school by her grandmother. But she never showed up after the dismissal bell rang.

As Garden Grove police officers search inside the apartment where Amber lives with her mother, taking pictures of the girl before they fan out to look for her, Scheller talks outside with her grandmother.

“They’ll find her, ma’am,” Scheller reassures her. “She’s probably with her mother.”

As a longtime chaplain for the Garden Grove Police Department, Scheller rides along with patrol officers for a good portion of their shifts twice a week.

His job is part counselor, part sounding board.

Wearing jeans and a black polo shirt with the word “Chaplain” embroidered above his left breast pocket, Scheller, 54, cuts a less formal figure than the uniformed officers with whom he responds to calls.

Members of the public he encounters, many of them traumatized by tragedies, recognize this. They tend to gravitate toward Scheller, a minister for 20 years and senior pastor for 10 years at Faith Community Church of West Garden Grove.

Suicides. Domestic disputes. Homicides. During his almost 10 years with the Garden Grove PD, Scheller’s seen it all. Prior to that, he was a chaplain for the Huntington Beach PD for nine years.

Despite the sometimes ugly nature of his volunteer work with the Garden Grove PD, Scheller’s cheerful and compassionate demeanor remains unflappable.

“I never have bad dreams about what I see (on police calls),” Scheller says. “God’s always given me the ability to power through things. That’s how I know this is a calling.”

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Within the Garden Grove PD, where Scheller also counsels officers who need a sympathetic ear and advice concerning personal issues, he’s a beloved and admired presence.

“He literally takes care of the people here like his flock,” says Sgt. Bob Bowers.

After a recent morning briefing, Scheller rides with veteran Officer Gary Coulter for a good chunk of Coulter’s graveyard shift patrolling the west side of Garden Grove.

Their first call concerns the missing girl, Amber.

Coulter and Scheller scour a nearby Goodwill, 99 Cent Store and Wal-Mart  — stores Amber’s mother often takes her to after school.

By 4 p.m., however, Amber is found locked outside of her grandmother’s home. Her mother had dropped her off, believing Amber’s grandmother was inside.

Scheller’s ridealong this day is relatively uneventful. After the Amber call, he and Coulter respond to a recovering meth addict who reported her call was stolen, then to a woman who said an irate bicyclist damaged her car in a road rage incident on her way to work, and then to a park where a drunk man brandished a knife.

“I love the ministry and working with people,” says Scheller, a father of two grown children and resident of Seal Beach. “I love to see how God can use me in different situations. I see myself as a servant of God.”

On more serious calls such as suicides, Scheller, who is working on a doctorate degree in ministry with an emphasis in trauma counseling from Biola University, mostly listens to grieving survivors and directs them to resources as needed while the cops do their job.

Scheller, whose tanned face is framed by a cop-like buzz cut, has learned that lending a compassionate ear in such circumstances can go a long way.

“The joy I receive from being a chaplain for the Garden Grove PD comes from helping people discover the tools that will help them find a better life,” says Scheller, who is among eight chaplains who volunteer with the police department.

Counseling cops and shadowing them has given Scheller a clear-eyed perspective on police work.

“Their lives are like no other lives,” Scheller says. “After their shifts, when they return home to their families, they literally have to make a paradigm shift. Most people have no idea what these men and women go through.”

Scheller says that as a kid, he always wanted to be a cop. He grew up in Compton and attended Paramount High School and, after serving in the Air Force, he attended Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he majored in sociology with an emphasis in deviant behavior.

Scheller sees parallels between pastoral and police work.

“Both are people-oriented and both involve a sense of justice and right or wrong,” he says.

Coulter says having Scheller go out with him on calls is valuable.

 “He’s not bad,” the veteran cop deadpans. “And he actually picks up the check for dinner now and then.”

Coulter adds, seriously: “He plays an invaluable role here.”