Earlier this week our 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog series celebrated Battle-born Sister Mary Joy Langdon, who became the first female fire fighter in the East Sussex Fire Brigade. Today’s post is about another woman who has notched up a ‘first’ in the field of fire-fighting, but in a very different way.
Introducing Jacquetta Gomes, who since February 2014, has been Buddhist and multifaith chaplain for East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service (ESFRS). Not only is Jacquetta the first woman to be a Buddhist Fire Chaplain in Britain, but she carries the honour of also being first in the world!
Chaplains play an important part in the fire service, complimenting counselling and other secular support and offering pastoral, spiritual and religious support to anyone in the service who requests it. Jacquetta’s role involves offering a confidential listening service to members of the team. It’s not a job that many people know about, but, in the important task of maintaining optimum mental health and wellbeing among workers in the Fire Service, Jacquetta is a crucial member of the team.
Jacquetta, who is based in Cumbria, graduated from Durham University and was awarded a Postgraduate Diploma in Library and Information Studies and a Masters Degree from Loughborough University in 1978. She told the Women in Work website that she enjoys her job because it gives her the opportunity to be of service to the community ‘Every time I act as a Chaplain as well as helping others I learn and expand my understanding,’ she explains. As the daughter of a firefighter herself, she’s keenly aware of the bonds between people working in the Fire Service, ‘We see the Fire Service as a family,’ she says. ‘This includes the children of firefighters. I’m very happy that I’ve been part of that family.’
Jacquetta has been a Buddhist for most of her life. In July 1975 she was given the Five Precepts in Sri Lanka. These constitute the basic code of ethics undertaken by lay followers of Buddhism and are formally made commitments to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and intoxication. She was authorised to teach in 1983 and gives many talks to introduce people to Buddhism as well as co-authoring the well-received book Introducing Buddhism in 1988.
In August 1994 Jacquetta went on to take the Bodhicari Precepts, a deeper commitment to Buddhism which enabled her to become a Bodhicari and therefore able to teach, lead religious events, conduct weddings and funerals, and hold chaplaincies. Jacquetta was one of the first people in the UK to take these Precepts, and marked the 25th anniversary of this milestone last year by leading a meditation on loving kindness at a retreat at the Ketumati monastery in Manchester, led by Sri Lankan born monk Venerable Pidiville Piyatissa.
Jacquetta feels that as a woman she can offer a female perspective on issues. Chaplaincy is teamwork and needs those able to offer many different perspectives and qualities. As a Buddhist, Jacquetta says that she’s able to bring much of value to her role as fire chaplain. ‘One thing is mindfulness,’ she explains to the Buddhist Review, Tricycle, ‘it has been discussed quite a lot in the Fire Service’.
She also points out that the five daily remembrances of Buddhism: ‘I’m of the nature to age; I’m of the nature to get ill; I’m of the nature to die; everything will be separated from me that’s pleasing; I’m the owner of my karma’ – are reflections that can be helpful to people who never know when they’re going to be faced with loss, bereavement and trauma in their daily working life.
Jacquetta is also a Fire Chaplain for Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service and the Fire Fighters Charity. This charity, which has centres in Cumbria, Devon and Littlehampton, provides life enhancing rehabilitation, recuperation and support services to members of the fire community.
As a female pioneer of this unusual and valuable type of work, Jacquetta has aroused a lot of attention. In 2014 she was added to the influential list of ‘First British Women’ compiled by lecturer and writer, Carrie de Silva, and in 2018 to the First British Women list of the ‘Women in the City’ organisation, which promotes, develops and champions female talent.
As a female first, who has carved out a successful role for herself, perhaps we should leave the last word to Jacquetta herself. On asked about her top tips for a successful work/life balance, Jacquetta gives advice that we could all learn from:
‘A private life is as important as a work life.’
‘Nobody dies wishing they had spent more time in the office.’
‘Learn to relax possibly through mindfulness, meditation, or yoga.’
‘Remember social media has an off switch.’
‘Sleep and good food are important.’
Advice that we could all agree on.
Written by social historian Louise Peskett, with grateful thanks to Jacquetta Gomes