MOULTON, Ala. (BP)–Since 4 p.m. April 27, just after a killer tornado hit, chaplain Mark Wakefield has been onsite at the Lawrence County Medical Center in Moulton, Ala., and out in the community, counseling people with both physical injuries and emotional pain.
“They need to tell their story, and chaplains are listening,” said Wakefield, who also serves as associate pastor of Moulton Baptist Church. About 20 chaplains are serving with him. After the tornado, they set up a table with a sign that said “Crisis Counseling” but soon realized most victims were too embarrassed, proud or distracted to approach.
In the first few days, people walked around their demolished neighborhoods in a daze, unable to sleep, Wakefield said.
“People who have never been scared of anything in their lives are scared,” he said. “They’re scared to go outside, scared to open the door. The security has been ripped out from under them.”
So the chaplains walked from house to house, door to door — even if there were no house and no door — to offer prayers and listening ears.
“If you just walk up and start talking to them, they’ll tell you their story,” Wakefield said.
The chaplains also visit area schools to help students cope with the loss of loved ones and homes.
The Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions has sent out more than 50 disaster relief chaplains in groups of seven to 12 to the most devastated areas in the state, including Lawrence County, said Joe Bob Mizzell, director of the office of Christian ethics and chaplaincy ministries.
About 30 more chaplains have accompanied chainsaw teams, cleanup crews and feeding units, Mizzell added.
“Basically we have a chaplain for every [disaster relief] team that goes out,” he said.
All chaplains undergo Critical Incident Stress Management training during which they learn how to talk to disaster victims and listen as they open new wounds and share traumatic experiences.
“The No. 1 priority is to listen,” Mizzell said. “And whenever the opportunity arises, they share the Gospel.”
But along with counseling survivors, disaster relief chaplains counsel law enforcement, firefighter volunteers and even National Guard troops.
They also counsel each other, Mizzell said, noting that ministers have to support each other in times like this so they don’t become overwhelmed with the suffering of others.
Chaplains usually stay in the field for just a few days at a time. Then they’re sent home for a period of rest and reflection while other chaplains take their places. Mizzell said chaplains rarely stay at a disaster site longer than a week.
Much like chaplains at war, the disaster relief chaplains have to protect themselves from being traumatized as they help traumatized survivors, he said.
Bill Morgan, a disaster relief chaplain and director of missions for Autauga Baptist Association, is one chaplain who has been in the field a lot lately.
He responded when an EF-3 tornado hit the Boone’s Chapel area of Prattville on April 15, destroying the sanctuary of Boone’s Chapel Baptist Church. Most recently, he accompanied a team of seven chaplains to Pratt City after it was hit by an EF-2 tornado April 27.
A war film buff, Morgan said he felt as if he was in a movie as he watched families in the Jefferson County community pick through the wreckage of their homes looking for mementos.
“It really reminded me of the scenes from old war movies of people going through their homes after they were bombed,” Morgan said.
His role is to help them work through the natural stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Sometimes victims can shift back and forth between stages and even repeat stages until they reach a point of healing, he said.
“It’s an ongoing type of ministry,” Morgan said of chaplaincy.
Wakefield said he already has noticed some signs of healing, thanks to an outpouring of support from across the state and country.
As the daze and fear starts to wear off, people begin to see themselves as survivors, not victims, Wakefield said. They want to crack jokes and show off their scars like wounds earned in battle.
“People want to show and tell you things you don’t really need to see or hear,” Wakefield said with a laugh. “People have been really scared and exhausted, but now they’re starting to laugh a little bit.”
Lindsey Robinson is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist. To view the latest e-edition of the newspaper, visit online.thealabamabaptist.org.