OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Joe Williams knows better than most the enormous psychological, emotional and spiritual toll placed on those who serve as a chaplain in the event of disaster.
With a background that includes coordinating the chaplaincy response after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and helping supervise the distribution of the millions of dollars Southern Baptists gave after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Williams has been asked by the North American Mission Board to serve as the disaster relief chaplaincy needs assessor in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
As such, Williams’ duties include traveling throughout the affected areas and visiting with Southern Baptist disaster relief units, chaplains, pastors, churches, state chaplaincy representatives and other denominational workers.
His initial contract is for three months, but Williams expects it to be renewed for a longer period of time.
“Their primary concern is the chaplains who are rotating in and out with feeding and recovery teams,” he said. “I believe there are more than 40 units in operation across that three-state area — Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — that was affected.”
Williams and his wife, Linda, purchased a 25-foot Outback travel trailer specifically to take with them to Louisiana. He expects to set up initially in Belle Chasse, where the Oklahoma feeding and chainsaw teams are assigned.
“They suggested I go to Belle Chasse, which is a place I wanted to go anyway because of our Oklahoma people serving there,” Williams said. “I will try to connect with all of our units to make sure that, number one, they have chaplains; number two, that they are trained; and number three, to check on the chaplains’ welfare to make sure they are taking care of themselves after dealing with all the people they see.”
While disaster relief chaplains primarily minister to members of the disaster relief units, they also interact frequently with victims.
“These team members, who see people meal after meal after meal, are going to absorb a lot of the sadness, hopelessness and helplessness of these people,” Williams pointed out, adding that he will be relating to pastors and staff people.
“Many of these churches have been affected, of course, but some of them have not been damaged, and they are caring for victims on their premises.
“Those staff members and volunteers will need a lot of care,” Williams said. “They could experience secondary traumatization just from working with these people that feel so helpless and have lost so much.”
Joining Williams in the assignment is Naomi Paget, an FBI chaplain from California who has done much of the training for the SBC’s disaster relief chaplains, and has held training sessions in Oklahoma several times. Williams’ wife, Linda, who has a background as a grief recovery specialist, also will be ready to help.
Because the job is so big, Williams said chaplain volunteers who come and have not been trained and endorsed by NAMB as a disaster relief chaplain will be trained as they hit the field.
“Naomi and I will meet them and do the training there, and they will then join the rotation,” he said.
Williams said NAMB wants to make sure enough chaplains are in the field and are placed in the proper locations.
“They (chaplains) work through their state chaplaincy or disaster relief office, so we may have to go in there and request that some chaplains from one state unit to go to another state unit which doesn’t have chaplains,” he said.
Assessment, Williams said, is a tool that will prove valuable in the future, Williams said.
“We want to see what is working and what is not working in preparation for the next event,” he said.
Williams formerly served as chaplaincy and community ministries specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and is currently serving as a chaplain with the FBI. He most recently served as director of chaplaincy and community ministries for First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., before resigning recently to accept his new NAMB assignment.
He is one of the most respected chaplains in the country. After serving as a pastor for 30 years, he became a law enforcement chaplain after a member of his church, a police officer, was killed. He helped organize the Oklahoma Association of Police Chaplains and served as its director for 12 years. Since 1991, he has been a chaplain with the Oklahoma Division of the FBI.
For those efforts, he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by the Oklahoma Sheriff and Peace Officers’ Association. In 1988, Williams received the FBI Director’s Award for Exceptional Public Service, which is the bureau’s highest civilian honor. He is the only chaplain ever to receive the honor. He also received the John A. Price Excellency in Chaplaincy Award from the International Conference of Police Chaplains.
Bob Nigh is managing editor of the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger.