Lower Burrell man turned from drugs, found purpose as FOP chaplain
Nobody would have mistaken Harold Mele for a pastor 35 years ago. He spent most of his time on the wrong side of the law and preferred to avoid police when he could.
“Before I became a minister, I had a drug habit, and I was a very heavy drinker. Just what you'd call a riotous lifestyle,” said Mele, of Lower Burrell. “I had a $1,000-a-day cocaine habit.”
Now, as the longtime chaplain for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #39, Mele, 77, provides spiritual guidance to about 350 officers and has access to law enforcement that's rare for a civilian.
“He's the only person I can think of who's a non-member of law enforcement who has access to our meetings and our membership,” said Steve Aulerich, president of the FOP Lodge.
Everything changed for Mele in 1986.
His father had died, and he'd lost his job. His marriage was on the rocks, and his doctor said he would die within a year if he didn't kick his destructive habits.
Then he got a visitor.
“An old-time preacher came to my house and told me the truth,” Mele said. “The very second I said ‘amen,' I never touched another drug, never smoked another cigarette, never touched a drop of alcohol.”
He started studying to become a minister. Two years later, a friend who was a policeman offered him a spot as the FOP chaplain.
“Naturally, when I went in, everyone was looking at me skeptically because I was on the bad side of the law,” he said.
But, 28 years later, Mele said his life experience gives him a unique perspective on both faith and law enforcement.
And that perspective makes him a valuable addition to officer's discussions, Aulerich said.
“He's at all our meetings, he hears what we talk about. And sometimes he helps us by saying, ‘Maybe you should look at it this way,' ” Aulerich said. “It's always positive. It's never like, ‘You guys are doing this, and that's not right.' ”
As chaplain, Mele does not represent any one religion. His role is to provide advice and guidance to anyone regardless of faith, without judgment.
Mele performs officers' funerals and comforts victims. He tries to help the officers who call him asking for advice. He also serves as chaplain for about 200 firefighters at several departments in the New Kensington area.
“It's just living every day to be available and be obedient, waiting for the next phone call that's going to come in,” he said.
Every September, Mele speaks at the annual FOP service to honor fallen officers.
“He's a true blessing to have in our lives, that's for sure. He's been a lot of help for our members, and I don't know what we'd do without him,” Aulerich said.
Mele used to pastor two churches, but eventually learned that wasn't his calling, he said.
His favorite time of day is the quiet hours of the early morning, which he spends praying and studying the Bible.
The job of police officer has changed a lot over the last 28 years, but Mele's role hasn't changed much at all, he said. People's needs are much the same they were when he started.
“When people hurt, you try to bring them a little comfort in prayer and visitations,” he said.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or email@example.com.