Chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team recently finished ministering to victims of the devastating tornadoes that hit Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., earlier this year.
The Rapid Response Team, a group of chaplains that are trained to minister to people in crisis situations, spent nine weeks in Tuscaloosa and over six weeks in Joplin providing an ear to listen, prayer support, and counseling to victims.
Keith Stiles, the RRT's deployment manager, said that even though the ministry has a goal of sharing Christ with the victims, they don't do all the talking.
“It's a listening ministry,” Stiles told The Christian Post. “What we try to do is get them to talk to us about what they've experienced. It's sort of trying to get them to unload their grief and their burdens onto us ... We want them to know that we care about them, we want them to know that the Lord cares about them and the reason we're there is because of Jesus' love.”
Joplin was hit by an EF-5 tornado on May 22, leaving the city completely in ruins. The Joplin tornado was one of the deadliest in U.S. history with more than 150 people killed. In Tuscaloosa, the April storms left more than 200 dead.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2011 could end up being the sixth deadliest year for tornadoes in America's history. Not only have many citizens lost loved ones, but some lost all of their material possessions as well, and will have to build their lives again, literally, from the ground up.
Chaplains from the Rapid Response Team work in a rotation and usually only a week at a time. Stiles noted that if they work too much longer than that, after taking on the burdens of others and working 14- to 15-hour days, they would likely get burned out.
In Joplin, the organization had a rotation of 30 chaplains that served members of the community for over a month. Through their ministry they were able to pray with 4,231 people and 47 people made a decision to follow Christ. In Tuscaloosa, the ministry had 45 chaplains in the rotation who prayed with 2,772 people and witnessed 55 people decide to follow Christ.
“The thing about tornadoes is you basically have no warning,” Stiles said. “One minute you could have a normal life and the next minute you've maybe lost a spouse or a loved one or you've lost your entire home. Everything in your home is gone, and so your perspective now has changed. Many times people who are so caught up in the busyness of life ... now they step back from their life and they're taking a more eternal viewpoint of what's going on here. When you've lost everything it's a great time to hang on to the promises of the Lord at that point.”
The RRT set up mobile command centers at host churches where people could come and seek spiritual and emotional support. They also worked alongside an international relief organization, Samaritan's Purse, which focused on clean-up efforts while the RRT focused on working with the victims themselves.
"It's not a matter of us trying to fix them. We want them to understand that the emotions and the grief, all that's a very normal reaction. They're not acting in an abnormal state,” Stiles said.
The emotional and spiritual pain in these devastated areas is real, and so were the challenges faced by the RRT. Bill McDonald, a trainer at the University of Alabama and a chaplain for the RRT, went to Tuscaloosa and had the tough job of leading the loved ones of three dead children, all under the age of three, to their bodies for identification. In some cases, the RRT helped devastated victims to salvage even the smallest mementos of their lives before the storm.
On the other hand, they've also seen renewed hope as some people have dedicated their lives to Christ.
Preston Parrish, executive vice president of ministry at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said in a statement, "We are just thankful for the opportunity to come alongside those who are grieving and broken-hearted, and share with them the hope God offers through the cross of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Please join us in continuing to pray for storm victims and their communities over the coming months.
“The road ahead for many will be long and very difficult, but God is a sure and present help in times of trouble."
The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team has crisis-trained chaplains in 40 states and has responded to over 100 natural and man-made disasters since the ministry began in 2002.