The iron door slams and Howard Grimmenga follows the echo down a narrow concrete hallway. He passes some listless young men trading street clothes for uniforms that identify their new status: Inmates.
"Hey Chap,'' a burly corrections officer says, looking beyond his latest group of misfits. They include thieves and addicts, violent men in some cases with bad attitudes and no future.
"Chap'' is short for Chaplain. The guards and other staff at the Pasco County Jail in Land O'Lakes also call him "Pastor Howie.'' They give him the run of the place. It's clear they like him.
Often, they need him.
This place can breed depression. More than 1,300 men and women are locked up, some for cruelty that is unimaginable to normal people. The guards have to be tough physically and emotionally, but this environment can pierce even the thickest exterior.
Inmates have access to their own spiritual counsel. Pastor Howie is there exclusively for the folks who hold the keys.
• • •
Grimmenga didn't set out to be a minister. On the contrary. The eldest of six kids raised in a Chicago suburb, he seldom included religion among his priorities. "Christmas and Easter,'' he admitted. "That was my church schedule for many years.''
With no real ambition and a low draft number that made him a candidate for Vietnam combat, he joined the Army in 1972 with a promise to learn electronics and satellite communications. His timing was good as the war ended. He married his high school sweetheart, Nancy, and they moved to Berlin. They welcomed daughter Jennifer and soon received orders to move to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
They rented a house in St. Petersburg. Grimmenga had no idea that one of their neighbors — St. James United Methodist Church — would eventually change his life forever, setting him on a path to God and a calling to help others.
At first, Grimmenga stayed home while Nancy attended the church and joined the choir. By now they had another daughter, Valerie, and he considered making the Army a career.
One day Nancy came home and said, "I've signed you up for a horseshoe league at the church.'' Grimmenga had grown up with a horseshoe pit in his back yard. He loved playing and couldn't resist the invitation. He got to know the people at the church. "Just good, solid folks.''
He decided to attend his first church service. But as he drove into the parking lot, an older woman backing her car out of the parking lot slammed into his vehicle.
"I'm afraid I wasn't very Christianlike,'' he recalled. "Not a good start.''
But as they say in racing, it's how you finish that matters. Grimmenga began to enjoy the church, even teaching adult Sunday school and singing with Nancy in a traveling spiritual band. He left the Army for an electronics job at Honeywell, testing guidance systems among other duties. But what really got him excited was mentoring Pinellas County high school students and tutoring calculus and physics. He and Nancy even learned sign language because "we thought it would be fun.''
He grew bored with electronics and wanted to work more with people, maybe in the human resources department. So he went to Eckerd College and earned a bachelor's degree in business management in December 1989. At age 37, it seemed his life path was set.
Three years later, as Honeywell fell on hard times, Grimmenga got laid off. It took nine months to find another job, as volunteer coordinator for a hospice. He needed more money than this job paid and took a seasonal position with Robert's Christmas Wonderland in Clearwater. He began feeling a call to the ministry.
He took courses at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. The committee reviewing his progress for the ministry assigned him to volunteer in the trauma unit at Tampa General Hospital. "I had always been one to faint at the sight of blood,'' he recalled. "I couldn't even take the dog for a shot.'' But even though he saw "terrible things,'' he focused on families affected by emergencies, offering comfort and support.
In June 2000, the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church gave the Rev. Grimmenga his first assignment as pastor in Cross City, 160 miles north of St. Petersburg. He served seven years, including the last four as chaplain for Dixie County's emergency services. He also volunteered to run the domestic violence task force, served on the local chamber of commerce and earned a master of divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary.
After a short stint at a church in Jefferson County, Grimmenga asked for an assignment closer to family in Pinellas County. In July 2009, he took over as pastor at Faith United Methodist Church on State Road 52 near Moon Lake.
That summer, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office honored its promise to send an officer over to talk to kids attending Vacation Bible School: Capt. Chris Nocco. He told Grimmenga about the department's chaplain corps, which mainly focused on road deputies. Grimmenga wanted to volunteer, but his concern centered on the employees at the jail.
He got the call. Nocco is now sheriff.
• • •
Back at the jail, "Chap'' finds an empty seat in the staff cafeteria. It isn't long before he has company.
Capt. Ray Revell and Sgt. Steve Wood watch him from across the room. They emphasize the trust Grimmenga has established over two years.
"He's perfect for this job,'' Wood says.
Grimmenga explains a "big difference'' he has learned to keep in mind. "Not all pastors can be chaplains,'' he says. "Their sole purpose is to get people to come to Jesus. As chaplain, I meet people where they are, with no objective to change them. Whatever their belief, or lack of belief, I am there to help them find answers and peace.
"This is what I was born to do. Don't ask me why it took so long to figure it out. I think God made all the changes. I just sat back and watched.''