Rev. Dr. Cal Lord of Westerly’s Central Baptist Church greets a North Providence police cruiser as it arrives at the church parking lot to participate in the 4th Annual Blessing of the First Responders. The event, which grows larger every year, was held on Sunday afternoon, September 29th, 2019. | Jackie Turner, Special to The Sun.

Rev. Dr. Cal Lord of Westerly’s Central Baptist Church greets a North Providence police cruiser as it arrives at the church parking lot to participate in the 4th Annual Blessing of the First Responders in 2019. Sun file photo

WESTERLY — After the struggles that many have been through over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic during the past 18 months, perhaps none have seen it firsthand more than first responders in local communities. Members of the Westerly-Pawcatuck Clergy Association will take a moment Sunday to show their support and appreciation to those who have answered the call to service.

Following a stripped-down, digital service in 2020 due to pandemic concerns and the need for social distancing, the association’s annual Blessing of the First Responders will return with a nondenominational service, procession and celebration on Sunday at 4 p.m. that will culminate in a reception at 6 p.m. in the Christ Church Hall.

The Rev. Dr. Cal Lord, pastor at Central Baptist Church and a cofounder of the event along with the Rev. Sunil Chandy of Christ Church, said for members of the association, it was important to find a way to properly recognize first responders and the efforts and sacrifices they’ve made over the course of the pandemic.

“I spoke with Father Sunil and we both agreed that this past 18 months has been one of the most stressful in memory for our police, fire and EMS responders,” Lord said. “Once we received approval and support from our local agencies, we knew we wanted to go full steam ahead and do something that shows we are behind them 100%.”

The annual blessing was a concept brought to the clergy association by Chandy based on a program that he previously took part in while serving in Mt. Holly, N.J. When he presented the idea to Lord, current clergy association president the Rev. Ruth Shilling Hainsworth and others, Chandy said during a previous interview, they were not only receptive but almost immediately began working to make the concept a reality, with the first event held in 2016.

The program has only grown over the years, and despite the hiatus for safety reasons in 2020, Lord said he is hopeful that the public will come to join members of police, fire and ambulance agencies from Old Mystic to Richmond, say a prayer and show their appreciation.

Theresa Hersh, who serves as a sergeant with the Stonington Police Department, deputy fire chief with the Stonington Borough Fire Department and as president of the Stonington Volunteer Ambulance Corps, said public support over the years has been crucial in boosting morale and motivating volunteers, who give up their time on weekends and holidays to keep the community safe and secure.

“As a longtime first responder, it’s just a good feeling to be able to look around and see the public, to know the community supports your mission,” said Hersh, who is a member of the planning committee for the 2021 event.

Past events have included participation by members of the Westerly and Stonington police departments; Westerly Ambulance Corps; fire departments in Westerly, Watch Hill, Dunn's Corners, Misquamicut, Pawcatuck, Stonington Borough and Old Mystic; and the University of Rhode Island Public Safety Department. Other agencies including Hope Valley, Charlestown-Richmond and Ashaway have all been invited to join in 2021 as well.

This year’s event will include a few new wrinkles, with the St. Edmund's Pipes and Drums from Enders Island to lead the procession. The program, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 4:10 p.m. at Central Baptist with a concert by the Westerly Band, directed by Westerly Fire Chief John Mackay for one song, and carnations will be given to each agency’s chief or leadership representative. Clergy will then gather for a blessing around 4:30 p.m. Hainsworth, of the United Congregational Church of Westerly, United Church of Christ, president of the clergy association, will be the honorary speaker.

At 4:50 p.m., participants will be invited to gather for a procession to Christ Church. There will then be a service and celebration at Christ Church at 5 p.m., followed by the reception.

All are invited to join for part or all of the event, organizers said.

“We want to invite everyone to come out and show support for those who put their lives on the line to protect us,” Lord said.

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