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Stories of hope & survival still fresh in chaplain’s mind

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Although now back home in Livermore, Calif., disaster relief chaplain Naomi Paget is still moved by her experiences in the Gulf Coast region during the past two months.

Following are selected entries from personal reflections she recorded during her temporary assignment with the North American Mission Board:

— Sept. 22: Every survival story I hear is more amazing than the last. I have heard at least a million today. I have wept with evacuees who have lost everything. Their stories are of determination, the will to survive, anger and despair, fear and terror. I listen and offer comfort in ways that seem humanly inadequate.

Take the man who awoke to water throughout the first floor of his house. Even as he hurried to gather his valuables and move them to the second floor, water flooded the stairs and forced him out the window.

He spent the night clinging to a tree in fear of falling asleep and drowning as the waters swept past him. Three days later, he was found clutching the tree, desperately trying to stay awake.

Today I am sitting with him, listening. He is afraid. He has no family. He cannot sleep or eat. The shelter noises startle him and he is visibly troubled. He weeps as he continues his story and shudders as he reminds himself of the tree.

After awhile I ask him what would help him. He needs a hug — someone to hold him.

“I feel like I need that ol’ tree,” he says. “What else can I hang on to, Chaplain?”

Platitudes are inane but I welcome a moment to share Jesus with him: “Sir, you are to cling to the Lord your God (Joshua 24:8),” I say. “And no one will be able to snatch you out of His hands (John 10:28). Jesus will give you the strongest tree of all — the Tree of Life (Rev. 22:2).”

— Sept. 24: The medical clinic in Shelter 1356 is equipped with every necessity for treating hurricane evacuees.

The Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) is composed of caring, capable men and women who have experienced many disasters. They tend to injuries, illnesses, diseases and fatigue. They respond to anxiety attacks and heart attacks, complications from diabetes, asthma and alcoholism.

Tonight, I am in the waiting area, waiting for a California Baptist Disaster Relief team member who needs medical attention.

My heart aches for evacuees who have suffered so much in the days following Katrina and Rita. Escaping with only their lives and the clothes on their backs, their existence is complicated with sickness and fatigue. I am visiting with many of these who are waiting for medicine, a diagnosis and to go home.

The stories of escape and survival are amazing. I hear horrific stories of the Superdome experience, the overpass experience, the relocation experience. I hear fatigue, frustration and fear.

A man holding the hand of a little boy sits across from me.

“I don’t think they can cure me,” he says.

Concerned, I step toward him and kneel beside him.

“Tell me about that,” I urge.

“I can’t go home to fix my house, got no one to send in my place, and what can these people (he waves his hand at the DMAT folks) do for homesickness?” he asks.

None of us can cure his homesickness, fix his house or go in his place. As he tells me about “home” I am reminded that when I no longer live in my earthly home, I won’t have to worry about fixing a house or sending someone in my place. My Lord has already gone in my place to prepare a home for me (John 14:2). I won’t be homesick.

— Oct. 5: We approached the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary campus with dread for what we knew we would find. No one wants to be right about a thing like this. The gates were guarded to keep out looters and thrill seekers, but also to keep in bacteria, contamination and biological hazards.

The seminary was a mess. Nothing could change the results of Hurricane Katrina and the mold and mildew that had swallowed up life memories, possessions and valuables of faculty, staff and students.

Little had been spared. I wept with people who had arrived with moving trucks and left with packing boxes or trunks that rattled with a few mementos from the past.

The water had stood at seven feet, leaving evidence on doors and walls. Refrigerators floated and were toppled in living rooms. Dresser drawers had burst open from the pressure of saturated clothing. Photos and paintings were aged beyond recognition. The stench was overwhelming.

I saw her standing in the middle of a darkened room, black with mold and slimy with every imaginable bacteria. Her face in her hands, she sobbed quietly.

“There’s no hope to find anything salvageable,” she sobbed. “I can’t find anything to keep. What will I do? I have nothing left. There’s no hope.”

As I held her and wept with her, I tried to share God’s love and hope with her. Sometimes I reminded her we cannot find anything earthly to hope for, but: “Blessed is he … whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them — the Lord, who remains faithful forever.” (Psalms 146:5-6.)

Oct. 20: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, many disaster relief volunteers entered the devastated communities armed with gloves, goggles and chainsaws. Others towed trailers and some brought wagons.

All of these men and women were part of the “chainsaw gangs.” Wearing the same gloves and goggles, a disaster relief chaplain was often seen knocking on doors to let homeowners know that “friends” had arrived to help clean up the debris.

The chaplain would spend time listening: hearing the stories, validating the pain and praying with survivors.

Today I am listening to another chaplain share his pain with me. He heard 100 stories, shared burdens that no one person could possibly carry, and wept for the losses of the rich and the poor. He dragged branches, handed out water and listened some more. He prayed with people. No one refused prayer.

He shared Jesus at every opportunity, but few had made professions of faith. He hung his head and with tears in his eyes, he said, “My team members hoped so much for me, but I just couldn’t save everyone.”

I am weeping with this chaplain because I, too, know the pain of hearing such sad stories, sharing Jesus while someone is thinking, “No thanks.”

Disaster relief chaplains share the love of Jesus through their presence, their listening and their practical demonstrations of caring. Like Andrew who brought the boy with the loaves and fishes (John 6:8-9), they bring resources to people who are in crisis.

As we weep for the lost, we are reminded that we can’t do miracles and we don’t stand in pulpits. We can’t force people to make the best choices. Only Jesus can transform lives. We just bring the loaves and fishes … or in this case, the gloves, the goggles and the Gospel.

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