At the chaotic scene of a fatal fire at a South Weyant Avenue home in June, the Rev. Toby Cambron whispered a prayer in the ear of a distraught man whose 6-month-old daughter was still inside the burning residence.

The man continued to scream and curse while attempting to push through commanders to approach the inferno, but Cambron implored the man to join him in prayer.

Later, he would offer the same solace to the Whitehall firefighters who responded that day to the fire in Columbus that claimed the little girl's life.

Almost five years earlier, in the dark, early hours of a December morning in 2012, Cambron was with Whitehall police officers to offer prayer for a critically injured officer and to assist police with finding the family of the man who was killed in a traffic crash involving that officer.

Cambron, pastor of Westphal Avenue Baptist Church, also serves as chaplain for Whitehall's public safety department, providing prayer, counseling and support for the city's police officers and firefighters.

He does the same for the growing number of parishioners who attend the church, nestled among residences at 780 Westphal Ave.

A gospel preacher's work is similar to that of a farmer, Cambron said.

When asked how he is doing, Cambron said he often replies, "Man, I'm just hoeing my row. Sometimes I don't know other things going on around me because I'm so focused on my row."

"And my row is the city of Whitehall," he said.

Hearing God's call

In 1993, Cambron received an unexpected phone call from one of the church's 10 remaining members, inviting him to a meeting at the church, where ice formed on the insides of the windows because heating was deemed a discretionary expense.

The remaining members, without a pastor and struggling to meet operating costs for the church, built in 1946, were contemplating selling the property.

A woman who had attended the church since it was built, and still does today, placed the phone call to Cambron.

"I didn't apply; I was requested," he said.

At the time, Cambron was completing his studies at Massillon Baptist College and envisioned being a missionary overseas.

But, he said, God had other plans for him.

Those plans became a homecoming for Cambron, a 1990 graduate of Whitehall-Yearling High School who first found acceptance as a teenager inside the same church he continues to serve today.

"Who I am is a product of Jesus Christ in my life," said Cambron, 46, whose father left the family when he was an infant.

His mother and stepfather provided well for him, Cambron said, but faith was not part of his youth.

"I was kind of offensive as a kid. I was trying to perfect sin," said Cambron, who at 14 years old, and after repeated cajoling, attended a youth group at Westphal Avenue Baptist Church.

"To my surprise and delight, I (began to) enjoy going. There was a sense of acceptance and belonging," said Cambron, adding he never felt comfortable at school because he did not fit in with the most accomplished athletes, scholars or other cliques.

"But (at church) I felt I belonged, (and) then another light came on, and I felt a deep sense of accountability that Jesus Christ died for my sins."

After accepting the offer as pastor of Westphal Avenue Baptist Church, he and his family moved to Whitehall. He and his wife, Ronda, whom he met when the church reached out to assist her family when they were each teenagers, have been married 24 years and have four children between the ages of 15 and 23, all of whom are graduates of or currently attend Whitehall-Yearling High School.

Cambron has rebuilt the church, both literally and figuratively, digging a ditch to hook up a water line when he first arrived and leading a congregation that occasionally requires multiple services when its 100-seat chapel overflows.

A new way to help

In 2012, Cambron began his chaplaincy with the safety department, again by request -- this time, from then-police Chief Richard Zitzke.

Zitzke told Cambron there were no requirements or conditions -- "Just be there for the cops," he said.

"Being there" means several things to Cambron.

It is handwritten notes, delivered in person to the station or mailed, offering words of sympathy, payer and sometimes celebration.

He also rides with police officers in their cruisers.

Sometimes an officer will apologize for a "mundane night," but those provide opportunity, Cambron said.

"They begin to talk more (and) can share their burdens," he said.

Many of the officers and firefighters have his cellphone number, and he strives to be available whenever it rings.

In some instances, the department's associate chaplain, the Rev. Darryl Hammock -- a former Whitehall school board member and current candidate who pastors his own church -- will answer the call.

'Christ used me'

Sometimes, Cambron said, an officer or firefighter will ask him how he does it.

They ask how he has the strength to help police officers and firefighters through such trials as death notifications and listening to the troubled lives of others.

"I say to them, 'I don't know but I don't ever feel alone in the moment,' " Cambron said.

"Christ used me in that moment," even as he whispered serenity, he said, to a hysterical and grieving father at a house fire.

The service Cambron provides in such moments is invaluable and immeasurable, say those with experience leading first responders.

"Having Pastor Toby as part of a chaplaincy program has been a great benefit," said fire Chief Preston Moore. "(He) has made himself available to the firefighters 24/7 if they desire to talk about anything (and) he brings an easily reachable avenue to share thoughts, concerns or feeling that stem from an intense or upsetting emergency call."

Because Cambron spends time with firefighters in nonemergency situations, sometimes just dropping by the fire station, a rapport has developed.

"This familiarity increases the comfort level in tense situations and brings openness to difficult situations," Moore said.

Police Chief Mike Crispen said the police chaplaincy provides support not only for officers but the community, too.

"Pastor Toby and Pastor Darryl provide comfort and advice to officers in a confidential setting (and can be) liaisons between police and the community," Crispen said.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo