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Churches stay involved amid post-wildfire heartache

SAN DIEGO (BP)–With a glazed look on his face, a 60-year-old man who had just lost his rented home after devastating wildfires swept through Crest, Calif., did not feel he had the strength to rebuild.

“I saw him standing there and asked him if I could help,” said John Gillette, a pastor at Shadow Mountain Community Church in the San Diego area that has adopted the town of 2,700. “I sat down with him, found out he was a believer and shared how other men of the Bible were able to rebuild with strength from God and the resources of other Christian brothers and sisters.”

But, for hundreds who have volunteered each day to help the victims, they are at a loss for words.

What can or should Christians say or do to minister to victims of any disaster?

“It’s pretty phenomenal how we can be an extension of God’s presence during a crisis,” said Jonathan Olford, a psychologist who trains laypeople and pastors through the Billy Graham Evangelism Association Rapid Response (BGEARR) training. “Have we considered it to be an act of worship? Our role is to engage God’s presence as we extend grace to others.”

Several hundred church members from various denominations learned how to express worship through ministering to victims at free BGEARR training sessions in San Diego in November.

“We’ve trained 980 people from 250-300 churches in the San Diego area in a week and a half,” one of the trainers, Mike Beresford, reported. “Our hope is that the church will respond appropriately during crises. We don’t want to miss any opportunities.”

The Cedar Glen Fire in San Diego county devastated 2,200 homes and killed 14 people including firefighter Steve Rucker.

The wildfires burned about 750,000 acres in five Southern California counties, destroying a total of 3,645 homes and temporarily displacing about 80,000 people, according to Associated Press reports.

Beresford and Olford taught and helped write the material for the training developed a year ago under the auspices of Samaritan’s Purse led by Franklin Graham.

“We are a relatively new type of training organization,” said Beresford, evangelism training ministry manager for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “We do not charge churches because this is a ministry of BGEA.”

Three thousand people in six cities across the nation have gone through the training that was developed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

“We realize there is a sense of urgency,” said Chad Hammond, who was sent at the end of October by the BGEARR team to assess the damage and train local laypeople on how to counsel the hurting. “We want to train people to minister six months from now” when Red Cross and other emergency services phase out. “It is the local churches who will be left to minister.”

Three scheduled training sessions taught church members the basics on how to listen, pray, follow up and witness during a crisis.

“In this situation [the wildfires], we start with water and blankets and then it becomes far more complicated,” said Olford, who is being asked by pastors across the country to teach the crisis training to their congregations before a disaster happens. “God is asking you to be his fingers and eyes.”

Recognizing psychosomatic symptoms, building trust with the victim and understanding their fears were taught at the training As well as what to say and what not to say.

“Give them time to recover,” Olford said during a training session at Skyline Wesleyan Church in El Cajon. “Don’t feel like you have to fix the problem. Don’t push the person to ‘act’ or think ‘normal.’ After 9/11, alcoholism in the New York Police Department rose … as they tried to cope with their trauma. We are salespeople of hope. It’s our job, our calling.”

Beresford agreed. “We, as a local church, have the responsibility to respond in a crisis,” he said at the training. “The people that attend the training don’t get another sermon; they get practical ideas on how to respond.”

Olford compared trauma victims to crystal.

“We don’t throw crystal,” he said. “We treat it delicately. Many Christians, including pastors, have a heart to help but don’t know what to do.”

Many people left the training with a better understanding of how to best minister to victims.

“I thought it was fascinating and I learned so many practical ways to meet people’s needs,” said Heide Klein, a member of Trinity Presbyterian Church in La Mesa who attended one of the two-part sessions taught at Skyline Church in El Cajon. “It’s not just for fire victims but for coworkers who are going through divorce or hard times. It makes a lot of sense.”

Another trainee felt helpless after the wildfires destroyed area neighborhoods.

“Early on we felt ill-equipped when right behind our church was being burned, but this training has given us wonderful capability to minister to people,” said Bill Difley of El Cajon who teaches a marriage-saver class at his church. “This type of training crosses over into other areas of ministry. We can do the physical stuff for those in crisis but the emotional nurturing is not always taught.”

Trainees also were encouraged to take care of themselves so as not to suffer burnout during their ministry.

“Twelve hundred pastors step down each month in the United States,” Olford said during the training. “We need to take care of ourselves in the midst of ministry so we don’t die of terminal sincerity. We can place ourselves at risk of being a secondary victim if we don’t maintain our own mental health.”

With the training completed in San Diego, Beresford has scheduled additional sessions in the beginning of December for the San Bernardino area.

Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, which helped more than 800 fire victims with clothing, food and finances, will host one of the three sessions.

A free-will offering will be taken to cover 25 percent of the cost, Beresford said.

As many victims try to get on with their lives, the BGEA has continued to help in various ways.

“Our commitment is to help clean up their sites and bless them,” said Luther Harrison, a regional director for Samaritan’s Purse.

Since November, Harrison has helped organize more than 1,100 church volunteers in San Diego from various denominations to clean up and sift through debris where the fires destroyed homes.

“We have taken 113 tons of debris to the landfill so far,” said Harrison, who mostly works at disaster relief in Latin America. “We’ve been busy. We’ve seen tears from the people we help and we’ve even seen a profession of faith at the site. It’s a true blessing for the victims to see so many volunteers come together to help them.”

Bids are coming in at $15,00-$25,000 a site from companies, according to John Gillette who is coordinating the resources for the Crest community ministry.

“Victims are able to use that money to rebuild instead of cleanup and we get a chance to interact with them personally, pray with them and hand them a Bible at the end of the day.”

About 40 volunteers a day have cleaned more than 100 lots in the past month with help from Samaritan’s Purse staff and various churches in the area.

“We have a great database on who we have helped and they have received multiple touches from encouragement and prayer to meeting their financial needs,” Gillette said. “Our efforts are directed at the whole person. We will continue to check up on them and do what we can. We are doing a lot of relational witnessing.”

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  • Kelli Cottrell