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Disaster relief chaplains bond with victims

REEDSBURG, Wis.(BP)–Disaster relief chaplain Doug Davis opened an image on his cell phone of a house he’d seen along Granite Avenue, a main street running through Reedsburg, Wis., alongside the Baraboo River.

Reedsburg officials condemned a number of homes along this stretch after the river swelled into a destructive force, sweeping into homes and destroying foundations.

“This house lost its basement,” Davis said, viewing his cell phone and holding back tears. This was the first disaster that Davis, a high school history teacher and Illinois pastor, had worked.

In Reedsburg, Davis and others with the Illinois Baptist disaster relief chaplains unit had joined with Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers operating feeding and shower units from Florida and Texas. As assessment teams worked to determine the extent of property damage, disaster-trained chaplains ministered to the residents’ spiritual and emotional needs, said Dan Lovin, director of disaster relief chaplaincy for the Illinois Baptist State Association.

“This is our flock we’ve been shepherding for a week and now we’re leaving. It’s hard. We’re not going to be the same but they’re not either,” Lovin told his six-chaplain team during a June 20 debriefing following a week of ministry among the flood-displaced and distraught area residents.

“When God raised up this unit, He allowed us to do what He’s called us to do,” Davis said later, recounting a week during which he shared the Gospel with four residents. In all, the Illinois unit led six people to Christ.

“Just like He prepared things for us before we arrived, other units will be able to finish what He allowed us to start. We’ve laid a foundation,” Davis said.

Davis talked about how God brought him to Reedsburg, recounting, “When [Hurricane] Katrina hit, we wanted to go but we didn’t know what to do,” so they resolved “never to be limited” that way again. Shortly after, he and his wife received training. She worked her first disaster following tornadoes in Wynona, Minn. Davis said he and his wife would love to volunteer together when their children are older.

Gathered around a picnic table only blocks away from where families were slowly putting thoughts and lives back together, the Illinois chaplaincy team shared their survivor’s guilt and the devastation reflected in eyes looking over piles of their personal belongings.

“That’s not garbage,” said Ric Worshill, another Illinois Baptist chaplain. “That’s a bed they slept in. That’s a crib they put their baby in. I can’t imagine not being able to go into my home. I can’t imagine having all my possessions in piles on the curb.”

What made their time so important in Reedsburg was the access they gained to the lives and hearts of residents who felt they had lost everything, including their dignity. And even what was salvaged — appliances and few pieces of furniture and knickknacks -– had been picked through by thieves.

“Can you believe they’d do that?” one Walnut Street resident asked. “Here we are in trouble and someone backs in with their pick-up truck and takes a washing machine covered in sewage.”

The strain on victims of disaster takes a gradual toll. The body responds with a surge of adrenaline that carries through the early stages of simply dealing with immediate need. The realization of loss comes later as residents pick through what only days or even hours before was part of a relatively normal life. When they come to a realization they’ve lost so many dear things, anger, bitterness, grief and shock set in. At times, victims exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Chaplains are there during the critical days when victims sort through both their physical and emotional wreckage.

“They let us be a part of their lives because they realized we weren’t just here to do a job and then leave,” Worshill said. “They thanked us and wanted our addresses and wanted to give us their addresses because we kept coming back. When they crashed, we were here. Then they found out we were still here after they crashed.”

Back at the gym-turned-living quarters at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, the team of chaplains gathered with other volunteers around a table of pretzels and ice cream.

“Food helps you deal with adrenaline and grief,” Lovin said. “That’s why we have food after funerals.”

The following day the chaplains would head back home to the normalcy of their own lives — somewhere safe and dry. But caring for people whose lives are forever changed also changes the chaplains forever.

“Part of us will stay in this community the rest of our lives,” Davis said.
Adam Miller is associate editor of the North American Mission Board’s On Mission magazine (www.onmission.com). To donate to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief efforts, visit www.namb.net and click on “Give Now” located underneath the Disaster Relief logo.

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  • Adam Miller