News Articles

Tsunami missionaries heartbroken, hopeful

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–As coordinator for Southern Baptist disaster relief in Asia, “Pat Julian”* has seen a lot of heartbreak. But the aftermath of the recent tsunami is different.

“The hopelessness in the eyes of the people and the suffering that has begun are scarring my emotions and soul as they have never been touched before,” he said.

As he and his team have assessed damage and worked to meet needs, they’ve seen scene after scene of heartbreak. They’ve watched the living searching for the dead and wondering why they weren’t killed too. They’ve been tempted to become angry when they see children left with no parents.

As one man showed bodies entangled in wreckage to Julian’s team, the man’s face suddenly contorted, and he began to wail. He had just found the body of his older sister.

Julian and other workers feel inadequate to the task before them. They are impacted by the “immense suffering,” as Julian said, of the victims. But they recognize that they as relief workers will be permanently affected as well.

“Every relief worker who sees what we are seeing needs to grieve,” he said. “Pray that we will grieve as God grieves.”

“Jonathan Orfield”* is coordinating relief logistics in one country affected by the disaster. “What has happened is overwhelming to those who are providing aid,” he said. “One of our team members has said that the smell of human bodies is so overwhelming that it has saturated his clothes.”

Julian’s wife, “Vicky,”* is at home working with volunteer requests and prayer support and homeschooling their children. “The enormity of this situation is beyond anything we ever expected to face,” she said. “The load of the work ahead can be overwhelming.”

Because the work is so overwhelming, the International Mission Board insists missionaries working in tsunami relief leave the area after two weeks, even if just for a few days’ rest.

Additionally, they’re getting help from missionaries trained to help other missionaries in their regions during personally difficult times, said Mark Whitworth, a member care consultant in the IMB’s home office. Basically the role of these missionaries is to help relief workers talk through what they’re experiencing, he said. In a few months and again this summer, missionaries will receive follow-up debriefing.

Missionaries and other tsunami relief workers initially will feel emotionally and physically drained, Whitworth said, but the long-term effects generally are spiritual and emotional — not physical.

The missionaries affirm this. Even with all the physical suffering, what is most difficult for them is knowing that so many died without Jesus.

“It was heartbreaking to see so much destruction with so little witness in the area,” said Bob Lee, a missionary among the southern Thai people. “We could feel the urgency of spreading the Gospel.”

Whitworth said some missionaries will question their own missionary strategies, wondering what they could have done differently to reach more people with the Gospel.

Missionary “Grace Jones”* is caring for her children, home and other missionary responsibilities while her husband, “Kevin,”* is working in one of the areas hardest-hit by the tsunami. As she struggled to know how to respond to the disaster, her emotions and her concern for her husband, God led her to Isaiah 51.

“He asks His people to wake up and to realize that He is our comforter and the one who guides and protects and is in control of all,” Jones said. “Reading that chapter reminded me to wake up and share our comforter because lives can end instantly and many do not know Him.”

As tsunami survivors are struggling to rebuild their lives, some are seeking spiritual answers to questions that regularly begin with “Why?”

“I have seen this type of questioning often in this type of work, so that is not unusual. But I have never seen it on this scale. It is exciting to join God where He is already working,” Julian said.

He and other missionaries had been praying for two years for access to share the Gospel in an area that had been closed to them. The tsunami immediately opened those doors.

“So many will be able to hear the Good News who would never have heard otherwise,” Vicky Julian said. “In the midst of the sorrow and destruction, God is at work and that brings us joy.”

Orfield has seen God create opportunities that didn’t exist before. “God has really opened up an opportunity for believers to share God’s love through acts of service in doing whatever we can to help the survivors of this terrible tragedy,” he said.

Julian heard a Muslim woman praying and wailing to Allah: “Why have you done this to us? We are not infidels. We are not Christians. What have we done to deserve this? Please tell us.”

He and other Southern Baptists are ready to tell her that everyone deserves God’s punishment — but that He offers us His love and mercy instead.

“Pray that we can be His hands, voice and face,” Julian said.
*Names changed for security reasons.

    About the Author

  • Manda Roten Gibson