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Okla. bombing chaplain to ‘retire’ to expand crisis seminar schedule

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–At the time of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City April 19, 1995, Joe B. Williams was director of chaplaincy for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and heavily involved in chaplaincy work himself.

After the bombing, in addition to his work at the Baptist Building, Williams became chaplain for people in crisis across the state and nation. And that is one of the reasons he is retiring from his BGCO position a few years earlier than he planned.

“The bombing changed my life,” Williams said. He added that because he has become so involved with people who have been through crisis, he is comfortable relating with them.

Williams, 64, who will retire March 1, has established the Crisis Intervention Institute, which will conduct seminars and training in traumatology, compassion fatigue, disaster preparedness and response to violence.

Before the bombing, Williams was busy with chaplaincy programs in the military, health care, institutions, business and industry and law enforcement. But since 1995, his workload has increased to include organizing and assisting in helping victims, families and rescue and recovery personnel cope with disasters and in setting up workshops and seminars on crisis intervention. In the last two years, as violence has erupted on school campuses, he has spoken around the country on preparation for disaster.

Williams’ first connection with chaplaincy came when he was pastor of First Baptist Church, Nicoma Park, Okla., and a police officer in the congregation was killed.

“The Nicoma Park police chief asked me to serve as chaplain for the department,” Williams recalled. That was in 1982.

Williams said he was encouraged by then-chaplain of the Oklahoma City Police Department Dalton Barnes to join the International Conference of Police Chaplains, and in 1985 he received certification as a reserve law enforcement officer.

In December 1986, Williams joined the staff of the BGCO. He and his wife, Dorothy, were appointed as home missionaries in 1987 with the assignment of chaplaincy development in Oklahoma, employed jointly by the BGCO and North American Mission Board. Oklahoma became only the fourth state in the Southern Baptist Convention to have a position related exclusively to chaplaincy.

Williams has led the volunteer FBI chaplaincy program since 1991 when he was the only Oklahoman in the charter group of law enforcement chaplains selected to go through an orientation program at the FBI academy in Quantico, Va. He was also chosen a member of the FBI chaplaincy advisory committee to develop policies and procedures for the FBI chaplaincy program. And as an FBI chaplain, he attended the academy once a year for in-service training, which included training in critical incident response.

The training proved valuable that spring morning in 1995 when the bomb exploded in Oklahoma City that reverberated around the world.

“In 1983, I was co-founder of the Oklahoma Association of Police Chaplains, which included about 20 chaplains,” Williams recounted. “Within minutes of the bombing, my phone started ringing with questions as to where these chaplains should go to respond.”

One of the calls to Williams that morning, as he was leaving the Baptist Building to head to the bomb site, was from his youngest son, James, who said “with a tear in his voice” he was going home to be with his wife, whose father, a U.S. Customs agent, worked in the Murrah Building. James asked his father to look for his father-in-law’s car in the parking garage.

“I went to the bomb site with mixed emotions,” Williams said. He did find his daughter-in-law’s father’s car in the garage. Paul Ice was one of the 168 killed in the bombing.

Williams checked in at the bombing site with the FBI command center, got with Oklahoma City police chaplain Jack Poe, did brief organization and then went into the “pit” where rescue workers were carrying out bodies and body parts.

“We assigned at least two chaplains to the pit for a ‘ministry of presence’ as long as they were bringing out victims,” Williams said.

Williams worked the bombsite 12 to 14 hours a day for 19 days.

Besides coordinating 225 chaplains, Williams made regular calls at the command center that housed all federal agencies, and he was involved in the defusing of recovery personnel and debriefing sessions for FBI agents.

“I never experienced the result of people praying for me like I did at that time,” Williams noted. “I went to bed late, and woke up refreshed at 6 a.m. Only prayer could have done that.”

After a trip to Washington, D.C., for debriefing, Williams returned to Oklahoma City to begin working with victims’ families, survivors and rescue and recovery personnel. That work continues almost five years after the bombing.

Williams has received more than 800 hours of specialized training in critical incident intervention, including the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation of which he is a member. He has led in-service training in the area of crisis intervention for law enforcement agencies, hospitals and the military throughout the United States.

In 1996, Williams and Poe founded the Critical Incident Workshops conducted monthly to provide trauma therapy for those involved in the bombing.

As FBI chaplain, Williams traveled to Denver once a month and had regular interaction with victim families, survivors, U.S. attorneys and FBI agents involved in the Timothy McVeigh trial proceedings.

Williams, who has been pastor of eight churches in Oklahoma and one in Kansas, said he has a hard time with awards and things that relate to himself, but his office is lined with awards he has received for his compassionate work as a chaplain.

He has been a member of the International Conference of Police Chaplains since 1983, receiving the Law Enforcement Senior Level certification in 1991 and the Master Level certification in 1993.

On March 29, 1996, he was presented the Meritorious Service Medal by the Oklahoma Sheriff and Peace Officers’ Association for his work in the aftermath of the bombing.

In the summer of 1998, Williams received two prestigious awards. The first was the FBI Director’s award for Exceptional Public Service, which is the highest civilian award given. Williams is the only chaplain ever to be presented the award. He also received the John A. Price Excellency in Chaplaincy Award from the International Conference of Police Chaplains.

Williams and his wife are the parents of four children, Michael, Lori, Linda and James, and have four grandchildren.

His new Crisis Intervention Institute will have an office at 2200 N.W. 50th St., Suite 120, in Oklahoma City 73112. Williams may be reached by phone at (405) 848-3139, by fax at (405) 769-3108 or by e-mail at [email protected].

    About the Author

  • Dana Williamson