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Disaster relief chaplains share hope in El Paso

EL PASO, Texas (BP) — Four veteran Disaster Relief chaplains from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) packed quickly to drive from different regions of the state to El Paso to minister to victims, families and the community following the Aug. 3 shootings at the Cielo Vista Walmart.

The four men, all pastors, arrived in El Paso on Aug. 7 and began to serve. None is new to helping others deal with tragedy and grief.

Gordon Knight of Bryan, SBTC director of chaplains and pastor at Christ’s Way Baptist Church, responded to deadly shootings at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in 2017 and Santa Fe High School in 2018.

“There’s nothing that we can do that will help except extend a listening ear and a sympathetic heart and empathy,” Knight told KBTX-TV in Bryan-College Station in an Aug. 6 televised interview while traveling to El Paso.

“When people see the uniform, they ask about who we are,” Knight said. “We can start telling them that we’re chaplains, and we’re here to listen and pray with you — whatever you need to help you get through this.

“Ours is a ministry of presence,” Knight told KBTX. “Having people tell their stories can be very therapeutic and very healing.”

Accompanying Knight were chaplains Dennis Parish of Conroe’s The Church at 242, Terry Bunch of East Side Baptist Church in Haskell and Mike Flanagan from First Baptist Church Whitesboro.

“We’re trying to help folks as they walk through this time of struggle and grief and providing direction and resources,” Parish told KHOU-TV.

“We’ll just ask them to tell us their story, where they were, what they felt, what emotions they had. And to be able to encourage them, share some Scripture with them and be able to pray for them,” Flanagan said in an interview with Texoma’s KXII-TV.

“When you’re at your lowest time is when you need somebody to come along and encourage you, and remind you that there are good things out there that are possible, and that there’s a God who cares about you and people who care about you,” Bunch told Abilene’s KTAB news.

The men have been busy since arriving in the Sun City, dividing into two teams to visit the Cielo Vista Mall, local churches and area hospitals.

Bunch and Flanagan, who is fluent in Spanish, met and prayed with the family of girls’ soccer coach Guillermo (Memo) Garcia at Del Sol Medical Center. Garcia remained in intensive care while his wife Jessica, also a victim, was released from the hospital and joined the family waiting at Del Sol.

The Garcias were helping at a sports fundraising booth at the Walmart entrance when the gunman struck, shooting Jessica three times in the leg and Memo twice in the back and once in the leg.

“She was shot outside, tied off her leg with some kind of tourniquet, ran inside the Walmart and found her [wounded] husband,” Flanagan said. Jessica told the chaplains she said to Memo, “I’ve got to find the children.”

“Go find them,” Garcia replied.

Flanagan said that others from the soccer team had located the kids and kept them safe, and that family members were caring for the children now.

The chaplains had less success visiting victims at the University Medical Center of El Paso, where families and staff, exhausted from media attention and presidential entourages, were requesting privacy on Aug. 8.

Bunch told the TEXAN that he and Flanagan had an appointment to see about gaining access to UMC to offer counseling and prayer. Thus far neither he nor Flanagan have found local hospitals to be staffed with chaplains.

In the meantime, as they walked corridors at various medical centers, nurses spied the large “chaplain” designation on their yellow SBTC disaster relief shirts and asked them to talk to other patients and their families, which they have done.

Bunch also received a text message from a disaster relief colleague, asking him to check on her daughter’s friend Marissa, the manager of a flooring store near the Walmart.

“When Marissa saw our yellow shirts, she knew who we were,” Flanagan said. Marissa was trained in disaster relief but hadn’t asked her employees how they were doing following the violence. She asked the chaplains to talk with her staff.

“We had a great 15-minute conversation and prayed with six people, mostly millennials,” Flanagan said.

While Bunch and Flanagan were talking with the group, a customer and her mother approached.

The customer reminded the chaplains that they had assisted her at the Wednesday evening prayer vigil held at the memorial outside Cielo Vista Mall, helping her negotiate the crowd with her wheelchair-bound father.

“She hugged us. We prayed for her and she prayed for us,” Flanagan said.

The chaplains attended the prayer vigil at the invitation of college students they met at the mall’s food court earlier that day. The pastors planned to return to the memorial that night with 60 stuffed animals with Gospel tracts attached to help open conversations and provide comfort.

In addition to visiting churches, the chaplains were planning to be a visible presence at the start of school Monday at Immanuel Baptist Church’s Immanuel Christian School, near the Walmart.