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Conference bolsters churches for responding to local violence

FORT SMITH, Ark. (BP)–Listeners sat riveted as Joe Williams told of the 18 days he spent ministering to rescue and recovery personnel, helping workers and coordinating ministry volunteers in the wake of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City April 19, 1995. But notepads and pens were lowered and the audience grew silent as he told about seeing the bodies.
Williams, chaplaincy and community ministries specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Oklahoma City, was one of three leaders sharing insights during a “Church Dealing with Random Violence Conference” at First Baptist Church in Fort Smith, Ark., Aug. 27.
The program also featured Brooks Faulkner, senior coordinator for LeaderCare at LifeWay Christian Resources and Norris Smith, conflict mediation consultant for LeaderCare at LifeWay. The event, attended by about 40 school administrators, law enforcement personnel, church staff, chaplains and laypeople, was hosted by Concord Baptist Association.
Concord director of missions Nelson Wilhelm credited Bob Lever, associate pastor of First Baptist, Fort Smith, with the idea for the conference. “He called and said, ‘Nelson, if what had happened in Jonesboro happened here, what would we do?'” recalled Wilhelm, citing the shooting deaths of a teacher and four students earlier this year at a Jonesboro middle school.
Lever added he had “looked at the junior high school next door and wondered, What would we do if a child got shot there? I found out we’re good at following up on things but not when it happens. I called Nelson and said, ‘We need to be ready.'”
The conference leaders addressed many of the situations raised by Lever’s question and violent incidents faced by communities today.
Faulkner said during his conference, “Pastoral Care Skills for the Church,” that for counselors dealing with grief following a violent incident, “some questions have no answers. There is a myth that prevails in our churches that goes, ‘I know God let this happen to you because he knows you are strong enough to handle it.’ To decipher the tremendous mystery of the Holy is not ours to do.”
Counselors also must communicate to victims that “all events and happenings are not connected” and that victims “must not assume blame for bad things.”
“The real question” to ask in a post-violent situation, Faulker said, is, “What am I going to do about it?”
Faulkner urged participants to look for the biblical model of reaction to violence. “There must be healing. Everyone is in need of healing one way or another. Healing is a pastoral function that aims to overcome some impairment by restoring a person to wholeness.”
Quoting author Harold Haas, Faulkner concluded “the goals of secular counseling and psychotherapy are to alleviate emotional distress by whatever means are available and to help the person fulfill his or her potential as a human being” but “the goals of Christian counseling are quite different. It is to put right the relationship between man and God by conveying the Word of God concerning Jesus Christ to man.”
Sharing his personal testimony of responding to tragedy following the Oklahoma City bombing, Williams said he discovered “we do not know what God is preparing for us.”
“You and I are part of a nation on edge. We’re nervous,” he commented. “We live in communities where there is fear that our community will be the next headlines on the evening news. In a general sense, all of us are victims of random violence, with primary or secondary victims.
“When the violence happens, what then?” he asked. Citing his part in the response to the Oklahoma City bombing, he noted, “We talk a lot in the chaplaincy about the ministry of presence. It’s not a matter of what you say but for them to know you are there. We spent three and half days as they brought bodies and body parts out. I’d never seen the magnitude of the bodies we were exposed to during those three days. I lost five good friends in the bombing. Four of them were members of the church I was a member of and had been a pastor of.”
He said ministry to emergency workers is just as important as aiding victims. “When rescue and recovery arrives on a scene … their first sight might be bodies and other people bending over those bodies weeping and crying. One of my most vivid memories of the bombing is seeing a shoe with a child’s foot in it.”
The conference drew participants from a variety of disciplines. Johnny Owen, deputy superintendent for Fort Smith Public Schools, said he attended to gather information on crisis response for the school district. “We have had a crisis team and dealt with crisis-related events for the past eight years,” he said. A member of the response team, Owen is assigned to deal with communications.
“Any conference that deals with violence or preventing aggression in young people, our school district sends someone to attend,” he added. “This particular conference is appealing in that most that we attend deal with techniques, procedures and methods of handling the crisis. This one relates almost exclusively to how to deal with people who are directing crisis events or … with the emotional side of people who have gone through these efforts such as recovery and rescue.”
Bob McGuire, chaplain for the Sebastian County Juvenile Detention Center, said “the most enduring thing” he brought from the conference “was what chaplain Williams said about losing so many through the cracks. If we, as a community of believers, … do not come together and approach this tragedy as it is with our young people and their families, then this nation will be in turmoil.”
Susan Yates, Concord’s associational Woman’s Missionary Union director, came to gain more insight for the 1998-2000 WMU Project Help emphasis on violence. “This was a kick-off for information, to give us a shot in the arm for needs, a supplement for information we already have from the WMU plans.”
It also drew media attention, most notably from the Dallas Morning News. Reporter Vikas Bajaj attended because “I was doing a story on how churches deal with tragedies such as Oklahoma City and Jonesboro. … I’m doing an analysis on how churches deal with this stuff.”

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  • Russell N. Dilday