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Chaplains help homeowners as wildfire cleanup begins


SAN DIEGO (BP)–As Southern Baptist disaster relief crews begin to clean up the charred remains of homes destroyed by wildfires, chaplains will be on site to help Southern California residents process the emotions that accompany loss.

About 500 workers, including Southern Baptists and volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse and local churches, were scheduled to clean up the La Jolla Indian Reservation, which was badly burned in San Diego County, on Nov. 3, Don Hargis, disaster relief coordinator for the California Southern Baptist Convention, told Baptist Press.

“We’re going to try to clean hopefully as many as 25 home sites,” Hargis said, adding that he hopes to have “at least one chaplain with each team so they can be sitting and talking with the homeowner while the homeowner is there watching his or her home site be cleaned up. Sometimes that’s very emotional and they just need someone to talk to.”

La Jolla is one of the poorest Indian reservations in the area, Hargis noted, because they do not sponsor gambling.

Hargis sent out a call for at least 25 trained Southern Baptist disaster relief chaplains to help in Southern California. He explained there are two kinds of chaplains eligible to work alongside his crews, those who are strictly disaster relief-trained chaplains and those who are more highly trained and endorsed by the North American Mission Board.

The latter kind of chaplains, Hargis said, have undergone training in Critical Incident Stress Management or are approved by the National Organization for Victim Assistance. Others are Southern Baptists trained dually in disaster relief and in chaplaincy.

“All of our kitchens have chaplains there,” he said. “We try to have as many as two chaplains at each site, but a lot of our people are cross-trained. They may be cooking in the kitchen, but they also are a chaplain.”

Hargis said the cross-trained chaplains have specific jobs while they are not counseling those affected by disaster.

“They are primarily involved with the kitchen crews to make sure that they stay healthy spiritually and physically,” Hargis said. “They make sure the blue cap [leader] is operating in an efficient manner spiritually and emotionally, and they make sure everyone gets plenty of rest. Their job is to oversee the spiritual and emotional health of our teams.”

But if a victim were to walk up to the kitchen workers with an emotional need, Hargis said the chaplains are instructed to help immediately.

“We’ll say to that chaplain, ‘You need to go and talk to them right now. Leave whatever you’re doing because your primary goal is to be a chaplain.’ If they can work in the kitchen, or if they’re going to do cleanup, we’re asking the chaplains to basically be there to talk to the homeowner, see how they’re doing, ask questions that they’re trained to ask, and try to help them understand there’s hope in Jesus Christ,” Hargis said.

Among the opportunities he has had to mention Jesus was an encounter with someone at the Indian reservation Southern Baptists were set to assist.

“The other day I had an opportunity to share God with one of the Indian people that didn’t understand why we were coming out for free,” he recounted. “I just shared with him a little bit of my testimony and what we’re doing.”

As far as the need for chaplains goes, Hargis said he knows of at least 400 trained disaster relief chaplains in California alone who should be able to respond, especially for the Indian reservation cleanup.

“This is a one-day thing, but we’re hoping this will be the beginning of a lot of cleanup from San Diego all the way up to San Bernardino all the way over to Malibu,” Hargis said.

He reported that Southern Baptist chaplains were stationed at Local Assistance Centers in San Diego County, where people go to receive information about aid and to request crews to help clean up what’s left of their homes.

Hargis also gave an update on general disaster relief statistics for Southern California.

“I think right now we have topped the 125,000 meal mark. We still have four kitchens active. We’ve had as many as 750 volunteer hours, each hour meaning an eight-hour day’s work,” he said.

The calculation doesn’t mean there have been 750 individual volunteers, Hargis said, but that Southern Baptist workers collectively have clocked 750 volunteer days since efforts began Oct. 22.

After Hargis asked for equipment to begin cleanup efforts, he received eight front-end skid-loaders as well as some heavy equipment brought in from Long Island, N.Y., by Tad Agoglia of Disaster Relief Clean-up Solutions. Agoglia and some of his employees will join Southern Baptist efforts, Hargis said.

The city of San Diego will not allow nongovernmental organizations to help with cleanup, but San Diego County still is open to outside help, allowing homeowners to choose whether to invite volunteers to assist or use government-sponsored workers, Hargis said.

Individuals interested in serving as volunteers should contact Cathy Glover in Hargis’ office at 559-229-9533, ext. 255, or e-mail cglover@csbc.com.

Donations for disaster relief still are needed and may be made at www.csbc.com, or checks may be mailed to CSBC at 678 E. Shaw Ave., Fresno, CA 93710.
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Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press; Holly Smith is managing editor of The California Baptist newsjournal.

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