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Fire chaplain’s crisis calls prove eternally life-saving

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–Ragan M. Vandegriff III has spent many late nights ministering to firefighters and those who are victims of fire disasters and medical emergencies. Those late nights, serving as chaplain for the Orlando (Fla.) Fire Department, have given him opportunities to help save lives and to share how people can have eternal life.

Vandegriff already was involved in fire chaplaincy when he came to Florida in 1978 to join the staff of First Baptist Church, Orlando, as music minister.

While living in Marietta, Ga., he recounted, “One night I was listening to the [police] radio and a report of a police pursuit came on. It said that the car they were chasing wrecked and caught on fire.”

Vandegriff was close to the scene of the wreck. “I got there before the fire trucks did and put the fire out with a large fire extinguisher that I had in my trunk,” he said.

The man inside the wrecked vehicle was taken first to the hospital and afterwards to the jail.

Six months later, a man walked into Vandegriff’s office with a slight limp. He smiled and asked if Vandegriff remembered him.

“I honestly didn’t remember the guy,” the minister-chaplain recalled. “I was clueless to why he was here to see me.”

The visitor said he was the man Vandegriff had saved the day of the wreck and voiced thanks for saving his life.

“When I asked him about his relationship with God, he told me he gave his life to Christ while he was in jail, after the accident,” Vandegriff said. The man told him he had felt led to go back and thank everyone who had positively affected his life and to make amends with them or tell them how much he appreciated them, and Vandegriff was on his list.

A native of Atlanta, Vandegriff took his first volunteer fire chaplaincy position in February 1972, when he was appointed by his church as fire chaplain for Marietta.

Shortly after he came to Florida, “the fire chief in Orlando asked me to become official chaplain of the Orlando Fire Department. He had heard of my work in Cobb County and wanted to take me on as a volunteer.” He was appointed to that role in March 1978 by the mayor of Orlando, the city council and First Baptist of Orlando pastor Jim Henry.

Since then, Vandegriff has taken on several additional volunteer fire chaplain positions, serving Orlando International Airport, Orange County, Reedy Creek (the section of Orange County encompassing Disney World), the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and the Southeastern Fire Chiefs Association.

“I have a very understanding wife,” Vandegriff said. “She understands that I have to spend some late nights ministering to those who have been traumatized” by fires or other crises.

Vandegriff recalled an incident in Orlando involving a teenage boy and some friends who were jumping feet first off a bridge into shallow water. On a dare, the boy attempted a flip and landed on his neck.

He was rushed to the hospital, but had experienced irreparable injury that left him quadriplegic.

Vandegriff made frequent visits and spent some time getting to know the boy and his family. He learned they were Catholic and were visiting from Boston, Mass. Vandegriff said he was able to share the gospel and God’s love with the boy and his family, and found them very receptive to what he was saying.

“You have to be very sensitive to when and how you share your faith during such a difficult time,” Vandegriff reflected. “Sometimes it’s not the right time to share the gospel right after such a trauma, but sometimes it is. You have to let the Spirit lead you.”

DeFalco is an intern with the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal.

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  • Nathan DeFalco