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New York Fire Dept., Diversifying Ranks, Is Set to Swear In First Lesbian Chaplain
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The Rev. Ann Kansfield, shown in her apartment above Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn, will be sworn in on Tuesday. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times Ms. Kansfield is pictured in her home with her daughter Grace, 4. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Maybe it is her short, spiky hair, or the cigarettes, which she gives to the men repairing the wiring in her Brooklyn apartment. Maybe it is because she swears. For whatever reason, the Rev. Ann Kansfield does not fit the stereotype of a minister.

Not that she is worried about meeting anyone’s expectations for what a clergywoman should say or do.

“We shouldn’t have to hide ourselves or worry about being judged,” Ms. Kansfield, who ministers at the Greenpoint Reformed Church, said.

In her newest ministry, that self-assuredness is likely to serve her well. Ms. Kansfield, 39, is to be sworn in on Tuesday as a chaplain of the New York Fire Department, the first female chaplain and the first openly gay chaplain in a department that for decades resisted efforts to diversify its ranks.

A civil rights lawsuit that led to oversight by a federal court and to a settlement with the city last year has prompted changes in recruiting and led to an increase in the number of blacks and Hispanics graduating from the Fire Academy.  

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who took office last year, and his fire commissioner, Daniel A. Nigro, back the efforts, but the city faces a long road in remaking the department to be more representative of New York.

Ms. Kansfield is familiar with the sort of institutional resistance that long marked the Fire Department. The New York branch of the Reformed Church in America would not ordain her, despite her being deemed “fit for ministry” by her seminary professors. She was instead ordained through the United Church of Christ. (Because the two denominations recognize each other’s clergy members, she is able to preach in the Reformed Church.)

The Fire Department currently has seven chaplains — six of them Christian and one Jewish. Ms. Kansfield will be the eighth. Chaplains perform a variety of services: They provide counseling to firefighters and department personnel; they perform blessings and invocations; and they assist with notifying families in the rare instances when a firefighter is killed in the line of duty.

The chaplains, who receive a starting salary of about $20,000, work part time and are on call a few days a week. They wear the uniform of a chief, with special brass to signify their chaplaincy, and are issued emergency lights and sirens for their cars — in Ms. Kansfield’s case, a silver Toyota Prius.

When Ms. Kansfield, who comes from a family of firefighters, joins the department, she will be one of three Protestant ministers serving a force that has been predominantly Catholic, which is not unfamiliar.

“My whole ministry has been in environments that don’t look like me,” she said. “I live in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood — their faith is not like mine, and they don’t look like me. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have a ministry with them.”

Ms. Kansfield’s ease around all kinds of people is hard to miss. She joked with Freddy, one of the men doing electrical work at her apartment above the church, about whether he knew how to drive while handing him the keys to her car and her credit card, so he could go buy wallboard.

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In a sermon last month, she told the 30 or so congregants seated in the dark pews of her small chapel that they would fail in their efforts to live free of sin.

“If you fail, and when you fail, God will forgive you,” she said. “God will say, ‘You are my beloved.’ ”

Beth Soleimany, a member of the church band who comes most Sundays, said she thought Ms. Kansfield’s ability to connect with people and her generosity of spirit would make her an exceptional chaplain.

“This is the perfect job for Ann,” Ms. Soleimany said. “Wherever any of the firefighters are, she’ll be able to reach them.”

Much of the recent scrutiny of the Fire Department’s hiring practices has focused on increasing racial diversity. The class of recruits that graduated from the training academy in 2013 was one of the most diverse in the department’s history: 62 percent of the trainees were racial minorities.

But gender remains an issue as well, dating back decades. In 1982, several women brought a class-action suit against the department, and that led to a revision of its physical exam and the hiring of women.

As of this year, there are 44 female firefighters in the department, the most in its history, but the number has not risen much over the years and they are a tiny fraction of a force of over 10,000 firefighters.

Sarinya Sriaskul, a firefighter and the president of the United Women Firefighters, an organization that includes many of the city’s female firefighters, said the department is changing, and that the hiring of Ms. Kansfield is a sign of that.

“This is a different fire department than just two years ago, and hiring a female chaplain is a step in the right direction,” Ms. Sriaskul said.

“It’s useful for there to be more diversity, especially in the leadership, and it can make people feel more comfortable if they have someone to talk to who looks like them,” she added.

Women make up about 4 percent of firefighters nationwide, federal labor statistics show.

“You don’t get those kinds of numbers without institutionalized prejudice,” Ms. Sriaskul said.

Steven Sanfilippo, the president of FireFLAG/EMS, a fraternal organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender firefighters and emergency medical workers, said homophobia occupied a less prominent place in firehouse culture than it once did.

Attitudes toward gays, nationally and in New York, have shifted, with New York State’s legalizing same-sex marriage in 2011 and President Obama’s voicing support for marriage equality.

But Mr. Sanfilippo said he suspected there were many closeted firefighters who had not joined his group, which has about 15 active members. “Sometimes it’s easier to carry on your career without anyone busting your chops,” he said.

The Rev. Mychal F. Judge, a Fire Department chaplain who was killed in the Sept. 11 attack and was beloved in the department, was gay, though not openly.

Ms. Kansfield, in her ministry and in her own life, has not always taken the path of least resistance.

When she and her partner, Jennifer Aull, also a pastor at Greenpoint, wanted to marry, they asked Ms. Kansfield’s father, a minister in the Reformed Church, to officiate. He did and as a result, he was no longer allowed to minister, though he was later permitted to resume his clerical duties.

It was a difficult time, Ms. Kansfield said, but “it was an honor to be called to action in that way.”

Ms. Kansfield feels similarly called to ministry for the Fire Department.

“And if I can be part of the effort to diversify the great firefighting force in the greatest city in the world,” she said, “well that’s a great thing and I’m honored to be a part of that force.”

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